SAN FRANCISCO — As the Trump administration looks to replace a recently fired Obama appointee tasked with battling homelessness, California officials and advocates are in the dark and bracing for battle.
The abrupt nature of the dismissal on Nov. 15 of Matthew Doherty, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, has suggested to many who work on homelessness that the White House is poised to deliver a new agenda as early as next week.
“If joining and funding real solutions to homelessness, instead of political theater and points scoring, are the Trump administration’s objective, California continues to be ready to engage,” says Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for California Gov. Gavin Newsom, adding that “the state has not been contacted by federal officials.”
Although Trump has sparred with California leaders all year on issues ranging from fire safety to tailpipe emissions, he has been particularly scathing about the Golden State’s inability to beat back a surging tide of homeless residents.
Around 140,000 people are homeless in California, or about a quarter of the nation’s homeless population. Trump has suggested federal intervention is needed.
“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 will be doing something about it at the appropriate time,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One as he traveled to California in September.
While the details of a new White House strategy on homelessness remain unknown, suggestions of its direction can be found in a Council of Economic Advisers report released in September.
Trump officials take aim at homelessness: Blaming shelters and street sleeping, Donald Trump blasts California for homeless crisis
In it, administration officials argue that housing needs to be deregulated to get costs down, shelters are partly to blame because they delay re-housing, and policing should be ramped up in the interest of public safety.
Those working to alleviate homelessness note that the federal government has always had the power to provide relief in this arena, as evidenced by the various public works projects enacted during the Great Depression.
But some homelessness experts are skeptical about the motivations of the Trump White House when it comes to the less fortunate. For example, the administration so far has moved to cut food stamps three times in the past year, including a proposal last month to cut $4.5 billion from the program.
“It is my hope that if the administration issues an Executive Order, it will be one that supports and expedites proven solutions to homelessness,” says Nan Roman, president and CEO of the nonpartisan National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, D.C.
Roman says helpful measures could include providing access to surplus federal properties for shelter and linking health and behavioral care to housing.
“Instead, the administration has suggested providing more shelter, but nothing about getting people from those shelters into the housing that would end their homelessness,” she says. “It has promoted more aggressive policing, which has proven not to end homelessness, and proposed policies that create barriers for people trying to access shelter and housing.”
Newsom spokesman Melgar says “there are a number of federal actions” Trump administration officials could reverse to help alleviate homelessness, including ending “their misguided quest to slash social safety net programs like food stamps that many of these folks rely upon.”
Jennifer Friedenbach is on the front lines of the crisis as executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness. She says that while “there’s a lot (Trump) can do that would be positive,” her mind often runs to more dire edicts.
“I suppose he could try and get participation from cities to go hardcore and set up camps, but you can’t really force people to go to them,” she says. “You can’t criminalize not having a home, or having a substance abuse problem, but that seems to be an easy out for politicians. It’s an approach that sets us back in the struggle.”
The camps Friedenbach mentions are a reference to a mobile facility that was recently on display when Ben Carson, Trump’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, visited Los Angeles’ Skid Row in September. He spent time with homelessness experts such as Union Rescue Mission CEO Andy Bates, and toured a tent-like structure that could be used to shelter people temporarily.
Just before that visit, Trump administration officials visited L.A. and spent time with Herb Smith, CEO of Los Angeles Mission, a faith-based organization serving the city’s homeless.
Smith welcomed the meeting but was disappointed when the emissaries did not appear well informed about the issue.
“They had no handle on the causes of homelessness and its challenges,” says Smith. “They were struggling to understand the problem, which is largely about getting people to accept shelter in the first place.”
Smith encouraged the administration officials to look at the crisis as a natural disaster. “I asked them, what if Skid Row were wiped out by a surging river, what would you do, and they said, ‘We’d send in FEMA,’” recalls Smith. “So, I asked them why not provide that same response here? They didn’t have an answer for that.”
For Smith, any executive action that relies on disrupting an already fragile ecosystem would be unwelcome on the part of those helping the homeless.
“Look, the Feds don’t have the authority to come in and arrest people for being homeless,” he says. “But my real concern about whatever might be presented is that it will include moving people around, traumatizing people and generally just exacerbating the level of human misery we already have.”
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava