Could things get any worse in the 2020s? That seemed to be the question, unfortunately, on a lot of people’s minds when the calendar flipped at midnight January 1, as the giant ball dropped and anxiety levels spiked into the howling winds of an already-dreaded election year. This much is already clear: For America’s estimated 750,000 or more homeless people, 2020 looks like the year that things will go from bad to much, much worse.
While the rest of the nation was focused, understandably, on other things in mid-December — either holiday shopping for most normal folks, or the impeachment of the 45th president for me and a few million other political geeks — the Trump administration was quietly gearing up for a harsh election-year push on homelessness. It would heavily target that state our POTUS hates most, in California, and appeal to his voting base that thinks “cruelty is the point” of U.S. politics.
Experts say the Trump White House — working with his secretary of housing and urban development, Ben Carson — is on the brink of a new policy that may include an executive order from President Trump but is almost certain to rely on a new “tough love” approach for those on the margin’s of American society, if such as thing can be all “tough” with no “love.” The likeliest schemes could turn food from a daily necessity into a bargaining chip, to lure the unhoused away from view in city centers and into large, out-of-site warehouses.
This new cruelty-is-the-point federal approach to homelessness looks much more certain after Team Trump quietly forced out the Obama-era appointee who ran the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and replaced him with a Republican consultant whose police-heavy approach to the issue led his critics in Congress to brand it in a recent letter as “cruel, punitive, ineffectual, and expensive to run.”
In other words, it sounds like this new homeless czar — Robert Marbut Jr., a former San Antonio city council member — is a perfect fit for the Trump White House.
Policy-wise, this is a big deal. It means homelessness is about to join climate change, air and water pollution, refugee policy, peace in the Middle East and North Korea, election security, reducing deficits and a long list of other areas where America is moving backwards after we elected a reality-show clown as commander-in-chief in order “to own the libs.”
While both a) statistics and b) walking or driving through the heart of most big cities reveals that homelessness has been getting worse across the nation — a combination of many factors, including unaffordable urban housing, the opioid crisis, inadequate mental health services and bad policy choices by both Republicans and Democrats. Yet there are some cities that have shown success is possible. Many say the approach known broadly as Housing First — getting people into adequate shelter before other much-needed services — works when done properly, so unsurprisingly the new Trump idea is to do the polar opposite.
But in some ways, the politics here is more even more troubling than the policy. The late vice president Hubert Humphrey said famously that the “moral test of government” is how it treats children, the elderly, and “those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” To say that Donald Trump and his administration have spectacularly flunked this moral test would be grading upward on a curve.
Under Trump, the nation once bestowed with a Statue of Liberty for welcoming the world’s desperate people “yearning to breathe free” is now turning away virtually all refugees, and hoping to build a giant wall to make that even easier. Babies and toddlers have been ripped from their mommies and daddies — and psychologically scarred for life — when families do breach the border. In cold, inadequate facilities, unthinkable record numbers of migrants are dying. Given this history, does anyone truly believe that adding homelessness to the portfolio of Donald Trump’s goon squads — over-policing people without homes and dumping them into what sound like urban internment camps, is a good idea?
The seminal essay of the Trump era, of course, has been Adam Serwer’s “The Cruelty Is The Point” in the Atlantic, which posited that seemingly unrelated Trumpian moves — from the (mostly) Muslim travel ban to chanting “Lock. Her. Up!" at rallies years after any threat from Hillary Clinton was vanquished — are all bonded by the notion that their “community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.”
It’s almost impossible not to see a new Trump homelessness policy on those terms. According to insiders, the 20 or so cities that would be targeted in any 2020 moves would include 12 localities in California as well as the president’s native New York City, areas that have earned Trump’s contempt in 2020 as liberal bastions. And any controversy over his moves would peak right at the time Trump needs to rally his 63 million angry troops for the November election. The idea that compassion might be a part of any solution to homelessness seems a non-starter.
If it’s a lack of compassion you want, then Marbut — who just replaced that Obama appointee, Matthew Doherty, at USICH — appears to be your man. The scion of a Texas-based media empire who meandered into conservative policies and then marketed himself as a homelessness guru by, in true Trumpian fashion, constantly failing upwards, Marbut once described his own cruelty-point ideas as “Housing Fourth.” That means an approach that places all blame on the individual and none on society, essentially outlawing panhandling and denying food or a roof to folks until they pass drug tests or otherwise meet behavioral goals.
Diane Yentel, president and CEO for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told Citylab — which has been covering the heck out of this story while most media outlets have largely ignored it — that Marbut’s record and approach is “punitive and dehumanizing,” and that his giant warehouse "strikes me as a throwback to 19th-century poor houses.”
The poor house approach seems a good way to describe Marbut’s “signature” project in San Antonio that carries the Orwellian name of Haven for Hope (but that former residents have nicknamed “Haven for Dope”). Based on past reporting about the grim campus-like project on the western edge of the Texas city, it’s hard to say which is worse about Haven for Hope: Its hundreds of calls reporting rapes, assaults and other crimes or its brutal practices that require new arrivals to sleep outdoors on concrete in a “Prospects Courtyard” until they pass a drug test.
According to Citylab, Marbut defends his record and his policy ideas with answers that aren’t really true. A claimed 80 percent decline in homelessness in San Antonio appears to be no really decline at all, just moving people away from the tourist zone. And Marbut’s statement that the homeless spend 93 percent of the money from panhandling on drugs, alcohol or sex is false (you’ll be shocked to learn the biggest portion is spent on ... food). Did I mention that Marbut is going to be right at home inside the Trump administration?
Over the last year, early warnings of a big Trumpian shift on homeless policy have largely been false starts. Turning around the aircraft carrier of federal policy requires more than a couple of 5 a.m. tweets (who knew?). But just as the president finally found “my Roy Cohn” in Bill Barr to serve as attorney general, Trump seems to now have “my Stephen Miller” ready to do for America’s homeless what Miller has done for migrants.
And so just as the images of crying toddlers or dead migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and kids sleeping under metallic sheets or stuffed behind chain-link fences would define what America became in the early Trump years, the pictures we remember from 2020 may be cops brutally busting up tent cities and huddled masses on hard asphalt courtyards. Or — if we’re lucky — this can be the year that the United States begins a better, smarter debate on a serious agenda for ending homelessness. But in doing so, we can never forget that for one side, the cruelty is the point.