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Our view: President’s homelessness czar could surprise us

Trump’s pick to lead homeless agency deserves opportunity to show his stuff

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, a D.C.-based nonprofit which calls itself the only national legal group dedicated to ending and preventing homelessness, has just released an annual report noting that more and more cities are making it illegal to sleep outside, on streets or in parks or cars.

“Housing is a human right,” the report, “Housing Not Handcuffs,” states in its summary. “While three-quarters of Americans agree ... our country has not put in place the policies to ensure that right, and as a consequence, millions of Americans experience homelessness in a national crisis that gets worse each year. Many ... have no choice but to live outside, yet cities routinely punish or harass unhoused people.”

It is hard to know what policies that ensure a right to housing would look like, since none of our cities have achieved that. It is no good saying it is a right if no one has exercised it – although it does make sense to say, along with FDR, for example, that all Americans should be free from want and fear, and we should pursue those ends.

Homelessness in the U.S. does not seem to be growing, and that is true independent of swings in economic indicators such as employment and wage growth. Visible homelessness seems to have increased, however, particularly in cities, which account for more than three-quarters of the nation’s population.

People in cities who rent may see rent consume half their household income. So they conclude a lack of affordable housing is the root cause of homelessness. It is intuitive.

Is it true? The important thing to remember is that we do not know. It looks arguable. But some hold the view granitically.

That makes addressing visible homelessness impossible without massive federal subsidies – and even then, you do not know if housing will be more affordable, or whether there will be fewer people unsheltered, including many of the current population who are afflicted with illnesses and addictions.

At the beginning of December, the Trump administration named a new head of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates administration policy among other agencies. Robert Marbut, besides being a Republican, has a track record as a homelessness coordinator and consultant. He sensibly opposes the criminalization of homelessness, but he also does not think “housing-first” programs – in which the visibly unsheltered are given apartments with no requirements, such as counseling or addiction treatment, and no supervision – are cost-effective. He has preferred, in at least once case, a large-scale shelter that provided on-site treatment. It does not make housing more affordable, but it is still not clear what can.

On homelessness, Marbut is a centrist. A pragmatist.

This might not be a bad fit for the role. But to judge from the reception, you would have thought Trump had put the Marquis de Sade in charge.

“Paternalistic, patronizing (and) filled with poverty blaming/shaming” – that was the tweeted response to Marbut’s appointment from Diane Yentel, who heads the National Low Income Housing Coalition, another D.C-based nonprofit. And then, speaking to Vice News, she drew her trump card:

Marbut “embodies and epitomizes what appears to be this administration’s approach to homelessness,” Yentel said, “to not address the fundamental underlying cause of homelessness, which is a lack of decent, accessible, affordable housing.”

This is becoming reductive.

To be fairer, Trump has ominously alluded to the federal government cracking down on homelessness – but by now anyone should know the president says a lot of half-baked things. We are still watching what he does, just as we want to see what Marbut can do, and equally important, what he will not do.

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