Trump targets California for plan to deal with homeless on 'our best streets'

Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson are visiting the state this week.

September 18, 2019, 1:54 PM

President Donald Trump continued to blame local officials in California for an increase in the number of homeless people living on "our best streets," echoing previous comments about the image hurting the "prestige" of high-profile cities.

“We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco and numerous other cities destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening. And I’m speaking to tenants – in some cases foreign people, foreign tenants – but they have where they’re tenants in buildings throughout various cities in California, and other places… where they want to leave the country. They can’t believe what’s happening,” Trump told reporters on his way to fundraisers in California. He's made similar comments for months and his political rallies and on Fox News.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump disembarks from Air Force One at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, September 17, 2019.
President Donald Trump disembarks from Air Force One at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, September 17, 2019.
Tom Brenner/Reuters

Trump said he plans to meet with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson about homelessness and has directed his administration to possibly create some kind of task force to tackle the issue.

“We’re looking at it very seriously. I’ve spoken to [HUD] Sec. Carson in terms of the housing element. But we have people living in our… best highways our best streets, our best entrances to buildings and pay tremendous taxes, where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige," he said.

"In many cases they came from other countries and they moved to Los Angeles or they moved to San Francisco because of the prestige of the city, and all of a sudden they have tents. Hundreds and hundreds of tents and people living at the entrance to their office building. And they want to leave. And the people of San Francisco are fed up, and the people of Los Angeles are fed up. And we’re looking at it, and we’ll be doing something about it.”

PHOTO: Homeless camp in tents in downtown Los Angeles, Sept. 17, 2019.
Homeless camp in tents in downtown Los Angeles, Sept. 17, 2019.
Damian Dovarganes/AP

Local officials and advocates have pointed the finger back at Trump, saying he has proposed huge cuts in programs from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other agencies that help people transition out of homelessness and that the federal government could do more to expand affordable housing.

Carson said the administration is looking at ways to support police working in areas with homeless populations and mental health professionals on how to support people dealing with homelessness. In response to criticism about federal funding Carson said "just throwing money at the problem isn't going to help," saying they need to focus on reducing the cost of housing so developers can build more.

"What we need to do is analyze the reasons that the costs are so high, and it's because of all regulatory barriers and restrictions. In California, it's even solar panels on all the new constructs. That just raises the price ridiculously. In San Francisco, the median home price in the San Francisco bay area is $1.7 million. Who can afford that? So we really need to go to the supply side here. What can we do to create more supply? And if we have adequate supply, that will automatically take care of the pricing. Basic economics," he said on Fox News.

PHOTO: Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson testifies during a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on September 10, 2019, in Washington, D.C.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson testifies during a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on September 10, 2019, in Washington, D.C.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

California has the highest rate of homelessness in the country with approximately 130,000 people experiencing homelessness according to government counts - 24% people of people experiencing homelessness in the country. The state also has more people who live on the street or in their cars, as opposed to staying in shelters, in part because of the temperate climate and lack of shelter space.

Housing advocates and local officials say they welcome more federal attention to the issue of homelessness but they aren't convinced the Trump administration is focusing on the right solutions. Most advocates say a lack of rising housing costs is the biggest factor in why homelessness has gone up in California but that it needs to be paired with more investment in programs to help people transition into housing because it will take time to build up the amount of homes needed.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition found a gap of 7 million affordable rental homes in a report this year and said 71% of households are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half their income on housing. California has one of the worst shortages with only 22 affordable and available homes for every 100 low income households, according to the report.

A White House report released Monday supported President Trump's claims that homelessness in America has not improved as much as the government previously said.

"In addition to shortcomes at the local government level, decades of misguided federal government policies have largely been ineffective," Acting Chairman of the CEA Tomas Philipson told reporters, citing previous policies to provide permanent housing assistance that he said keeps people in public housing programs.

Philipson said the Trump administration plans to reverse those "failed policies" by addressing the root causes of homelessness, as described in the report from the Council of Economic Advisers.

The report says homelessness varies in different states because of overregulation in like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City, where they say rules like building codes, energy efficiency and environmental requirements, and permitting procedures increase the cost of building housing, in turn driving up rents. It also cites local policies in liberal cities, warmer climates, mental health and substance abuse issues, and possibly law enforcement policies as factors in different rates of homelessness around the country.

Experts on the issue like Barbara Poppe, the former head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness under President Barack Obama, said they're worried Trump is trying to politicize the issue of homelessness and turn it into a culture war.

"My greatest fear is that with this paper they are staking ground that homelessness is a partisan political issue and I think that will do long term harm to the progress we have made," Poppe said. They said they're worried the administration will pursue approaches that criminalize homelessness or move people to shelters en masse, which would not solve the root causes of the problem.

Poppe and other advocates said the report published by the Trump administration yesterday seemed to ignore policies proven to help reduce homelessness, like funding programs to help people transition to permanent housing.

"We know we can do this but the federal partner has to be strongly at the table investing in the rents and investing in the services to help people get connected," she said.

"I think we have advanced so far in these approaches that it's maddening to think that they're espousing these kind of viewpoints, and that's where I think it reads more like a political justification."

Poppe also said the report released by the White House missed the big economic picture of how rising rents and stagnant wages have contributed to housing insecurity.

Amie Fishman, executive director of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, said she's concerned about reports the Trump administration could try to use law enforcement to force people experiencing homelessness in California into federal shelters.

"We know the public support is behind these housing first strategies. What we don't need is shelters and cages and prisons, it's absurd to have to say that but we need homes for our vulnerable community members, not to lock people up. And it's exactly the kind of rhetoric Trump has used to divide us," she said.

Fishman said policies supported by the Trump administration like cutting taxes have concentrated resources have directly contributed to the systemic problems with housing inequality that created the homelessness crisis.

"What the federal government's been doing has been cutting and threatening to cut and making life worse for people all around the country," Fishman said.

She also said deregulating housing, like the White House report suggests, would just let the fox in the henhouse and wouldn't guarantee more affordable housing.

"Trump is suggesting that we need to take action and that's correct but he just got everything else wrong," she said, adding "There are policy changes we need to make in California and in other places, there are ways to ensure we're getting the right outcomes, but calling for deregulation is another recipe for repeating prior disasters."

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