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Homeless Advocates Worry Official's Firing Means Change In Trump Strategy

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson, second from right, with Union Rescue Mission CEO, Andy Bales, far right, stand next to a temporary fabric structure meant to house homeless individuals, as he tours the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019.
Damian Dovarganes
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson, second from right, with Union Rescue Mission CEO, Andy Bales, far right, stand next to a temporary fabric structure meant to house homeless individuals, as he tours the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019.

Tensions are growing between homeless advocates and the Trump administration, which is in the process of crafting a new strategy to deal with rising homelessness in California and other states.

Advocacy groups are concerned that the plan will rely on more vigorous law enforcement and private market incentives rather than on efforts to house homeless individuals and provide supportive services — a policy known as Housing First that has been embraced across the country over the last decade.

The latest sign that change is afoot came last week with the ouster of Matthew Doherty, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. The agency, created in 1987, is charged with coordinating the federal government's response to homelessness and working with state and local governments, as well as with the private sector, to find solutions.

Doherty, an appointee of President Obama and supporter of the Housing First philosophy, announced his departure last week in an e-mail to colleagues.

"When I decided to stay in place through the transition in administrations, my commitment was to try to stay and support the team at USICH to do our best work possible together until either: the Administration told me to take my things and go; or I felt like I could not still act and speak with integrity," he wrote. "They have now told me to pack my things up and go."

Doherty was not given a reason for his ouster and a White House spokesman would not comment on the move. However, homeless advocates took it as a sign that the Trump administration is getting ready to move in a new direction.

"The administration fired the highly competent & committed director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness. What are they planning that they'd want to first push him out?" tweeted Diane Yentel, head of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

At issue is a White House effort to develop a strategy to deal with homelessness, especially in California, which has seen an explosion recently in the number of people living on its streets. President Trump has called homeless encampments in the state "disgusting" and warned that their growth will "destroy" cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles.

During a recent visit to the state, Trump also blamed Democratic leaders for the crisis, warning that "if these Democrat liberal politicians don't straighten it out, the federal government will have to come in."

Shortly after his visit, the Environmental Protection Agency accused the state and the city of San Francisco of violating pollution laws by allowing needles and other waste from homeless encampments to drain into the ocean — something California officials have denied.

The President also deployed a team of top aides to California in September to look for solutions. Among the options the group is considering is moving homeless individuals off the streets and into refurbished federal facilities, although it's unclear how such moves would be accomplished.

Homeless advocates are concerned because the White House effort has excluded experts inside and outside the government who have worked on homeless issues for decades. Even the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, tasked with coordinating the federal response, was not involved in the California trip and has not been part of the administration's deliberations on a new strategy.

After Doherty's ouster, the nonpartisan National Alliance to End Homelessness issued a statement urging the administration to replace him with someone who has a "thorough knowledge of homelessness and its solutions." The group said that homelessness "should not be an ideological issue, but one addressed with evidence and knowledge of what works. This was the approach Matthew Doherty took. He will be missed."

In an interview with NPR, the group's president and CEO, Nan Roman called Doherty's departure "a bit ominous" in light of other signs that the administration wants to reshape homeless policy. "I understand that he's a political appointee and administrations certainly have the right to change their political appointees," but said, "It's a little bit strange that they waited three years to ask him to go."

Roman and other advocates agree with the Trump administration that homelessness is a serious national problem. Last year, more than a half-million people in the United States were homeless. But there are big disagreements over how to handle the issue. Many advocates and state and local officials would like to see more funding for affordable housing, as well as for mental health and other services.

The administration wants to take a much different approach. A report released in September by the White House Council of Economic Advisers blamed the problem on "decades of misguided and faulty policies." It cited restrictive zoning laws for stifling the construction of more affordable housing, questioned the effectiveness of Housing First, and said that a larger supply of shelter space and "tolerable conditions for sleeping on the streets" encouraged homelessness.

The report also suggested that more police enforcement of vagrancy and other laws might alleviate the problem.

In an Oct. 28 letter to Trump, California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, who heads the House Financial Services Committee, demanded more information about his plans before any action is taken. She said that many of the president's policies so far, such as proposed cuts to housing assistance for low-income families, have only made the problem of homelessness worse. Democrats have accused the president of exploiting the issue for political gain.

"Your shamelessness knows no bounds," Waters wrote. "From day one of your presidency, you have attacked our democracy and now you have set your ire on the 550,000 Americans who on any given night experience homelessness."

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson responded to Waters in a letter this week with some scathing words of his own: "Shamelessness is a career politician of 30 years laying blame. Shamelessness is allowing more than 55,000 Americans to live on the very streets they represent." Waters' congressional district is in Los Angeles County, which has the highest number of unsheltered people in the country. Carson said the administration would be releasing new figures soon that will show the rate of homelessness dropping around the country "with the glaring exception of California."

The HUD secretary ended his letter by saying, "I would love to work with you, in a bipartisan fashion, to solve this crisis."

Waters responded with a statement on Tuesday, calling Carson "a complete failure" at HUD. "If he is sincere in wanting to have a constructive, bipartisan conversation with me, he can start by providing substantive answers to the numerous questions posed in my October 28 letter,"she said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.
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