Advocates Push Back on Trump Administration Call for 'Humane Policing' of Homeless People

In this May 30, 2019 file photo tents housing homeless line a street in downtown Los Angeles.

In this May 30, 2019 file photo tents housing homeless line a street in downtown Los Angeles. AP Photo/Richard Vogel

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Ahead of President Trump’s trip to California this week, the administration has outlined strategies including housing deregulation and increased law enforcement involvement.

Homeless advocacy groups on Tuesday rebuked President Trump’s latest proposed strategy to address homelessness, lambasting plans that would require law enforcement intervention and rely on local housing market deregulation.

A White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) report issued Monday blamed local government policies, specifically overregulated housing markets, for concentrations of homeless people living on the streets in some cities and suggested more aggressive intervention by law enforcement could help solve the problem.

Pushback over the suggestions made in the report comes the same day Trump is on a fundraising trip to California, a state he has criticized over the extent of its homeless population, which grew last year. On Tuesday, Trump decried the negative impact the homeless crisis is having on residents of Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities.  

“We have people living in our … best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings ... where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige,” Trump said, according to White House pool reports. “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.”

The CEA report states that high concentrations of unsheltered homeless people in some cities is related to the “tolerability of sleeping on the street” which may have some correlation with the local level of “policing of street activities.”

Advocates said law enforcement deployment is not a good strategy to combat the problem of people not having places to live.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty said the U.S. has only about half the emergency shelter beds needed to house the current estimated homeless population. Other homeless advocacy groups were also critical of criminalizing people for living outdoors. 

“Affordable and accessible homes end homelessness; not criminalization or other ways of punishing people for their poverty, sweeping people experiencing homelessness into increasingly unsafe areas, or warehousing people in untenable and unsustainable conditions,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The Trump administration report says differences in how local police interact with unsheltered homeless populations could be a factor in the larger populations in states including California, Oregon and Washington. While those states all have milder winters than other parts of the country, similarly mild Florida and Arizona have much smaller populations of homeless people who stay on the street, in cars or abandoned buildings.

“Local policies, including the role of the police, could play a role in these differences,” said CEA Chairman Tom Philipson in a call with reporters on Monday. “When paired with effective services, humane policing may be an important tool to help move people off the street and into shelter or housing where they can get the services they need, as well as to ensure the health and safety of homeless and non-homeless people alike.”

White House officials did not specify during the call what law enforcement action is being contemplated or how they could move forward without local buy-in. The federal government cannot compel local police to take actions like forcing people to move tents and decisions about what to do would largely be up to local law enforcement. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, Justice Department officials met with members of the Los Angeles police union to discuss ways to legally enable police to carry out enforcement efforts at homeless encampments.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over California, ruled last year that criminalizing homelessness was unconstitutional. The court ruled against Boise, Idaho and found the city could not arrest homeless people for sleeping outdoors when it does not have beds available to shelter them.  

“Homelessness in California is a crisis, as it is in many other areas of the country—one that demands urgent action at the federal, state and local levels,” Yentel said. “Federal attention to solving the crisis is long overdue, but President Trump and his administration are clearly not acting in good faith to end homelessness.”

Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said if the administration wanted to make a dent in homelessness, it should instead focus on investments in affordable housing, providing surplus property to communities that need to expand emergency shelter capacity, and increasing resources to connect people with housing.

CityLab on Tuesday reported that the federal government twice rejected requests by advocacy groups to use a building in Hawthorne outside Los Angeles as a shelter, although federal officials reportedly had recently looked at the same facility. The Los Angeles Times, however, noted on Tuesday that the building is in the process of being sold.

The CEA report suggests local regulations that impede housing construction contribute to homelessness by reducing the supply of homes and increasing rents. The report does not provide any specific suggestions on steps to get ease local regulations of the housing market in order to reduce homelessness. But, it suggests that over time, deregulation in 11 major metropolitan regions would contribute to an overall 13% decline in the number of homeless people, including a 54% decline in San Francisco.  

A 2018 study by the University of California at Los Angeles confirmed a correlation between higher housing costs and higher rates of homelessness.

Advocates said the CEA report overstates the potential for reworking local housing regulations  to address the national homelessness crisis.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty.

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