The Trump Administration’s false and damaging narrative on homelessness

People experiencing homelessness seen laying out in front of a sign that says a new Trump Tower is being built down the road from them.

People homeless in Mumbai in front of a Trump Tower sign. Photo courtesy of PaulNeedham / Flickr

Last week, we learned that Robert Marbut would be named as the executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), a position recently left open by the ousting of Matthew Doherty. USICH is a critical agency created by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act with a mandate to “reduce and end homelessness in the nation,” and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and other groups seeking to end homelessness have worked closely with it. We fear that Marbut’s appointment, coupled with recent damaging and inaccurate rhetoric from the Trump administration, will lead to harmful new policies that will hurt people experiencing homelessness.  

Over the past months, President Donald Trump has called homelessness “a disgrace” and referred to areas of homelessness as a “disgusting slum.” He has also perpetuated false beliefs that homelessness is caused by and directly related to mental illness and drug addiction — even though we know the driving cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable and accessible housing.  

In addition, the White House Council of Economic Advisors recently published a white paper attempting to discredit the proven solution of Housing First, and the administration is poised to issue a new executive order that would potentially increase harmful criminalization practices. We fear that these actions, and the appointment of Marbut, are being used to amplify Trump’s destructive language and to justify the possibility of razing encampments and of so-called “sweeps.” 

The Law Center is concerned that Doherty’s forced resignation and that Marbut’s appointment are based on politics, not on the well-being of our unhoused neighbors. Marbut has previously worked as a private consultant whose work with cities has been grounded in a criminalization approach that forces homeless persons into “campuses” (including one housed in a former jail) under threat of arrest. This approach is consistent with the administration’s misguided statements that people experiencing homelessness are too comfortable on the street and need to be forced into shelters — which are often non-existent or not appropriate for their needs. 

On Monday, the Law Center released our updated Housing Not Handcuffs 2019 report—showing that the criminalization of homelessness continues to increase throughout the country. This report shows not only how criminalization is ineffective, harmful, and costly, but also how criminalization laws exacerbate homelessness by creating barriers to housing, employment, and services needed to escape life on the streets.  

The updated report also reviews the disparate racial impact of homelessness and disparate impacts on persons with disabilities and the LGBTQ community. The inaccurate belief — reinforced by public commentary like Trump’s — that homelessness is a result of poor life choices, mental illness, and/or drug addiction motivates public calls for a zero-tolerance approach to homelessness; which in turn leads to criminalization laws designed to remove visibly homeless people from public space.  

We fear that the president’s invective — and policies — targeting people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ communities are already giving license to state and local leaders to increase their efforts to “sweep” homeless people out of public places. At the least, they are inciting misinformed public support of these policies. As our new report shows, this destructive policy trend is increasing, and we are concerned that Marbut’s appointment may worsen the situation.  

However, there are existing and promising policies currently at work across the country —  including key recommendations in Housing Not Handcuffs 2019 and in evidence-based approaches laid out by USICH’s Federal Strategic Plan to End Homelessness. These solutions need to be supported — and housing needs to be recognized as the basic human right that it is — in order to end homelessness. The Law Center will continue to push for Housing Not Handcuffs, for housing-based solutions and against any approach that criminalizes homelessness. We hope USICH will be a partner in this work.  

Maria Foscarinis is founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. 

Issues |Civil Rights|Criminalization of Homelessness|Political commentary

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.