It’s one more thing that any of the millions of marginalized people living in America in 2019 don’t want to deal with: Donald Trump suddenly becoming aware of your existence. For California’s way-too-large and still-growing population of people without housing — with tens of thousands living under freeway overpasses or on sun-baked sidewalks in tents — the 45th president heard about them the same way that the man who controls the world’s largest intelligence apparatus, including the CIA, gets all his information. He saw it on the Fox News Channel.
Although the tragedy of rising homelessness in the largest U.S. state has been festering for years, there’s no evidence it was on Trump’s radar screen before July, when FNC’s Tucker Carlson blindsided the president — during an interview about a Japan trip — with a question about what the feds could do about California’s problem, with Trump ad-libbing he might have to “intercede.” Since then, Carlson — POTUS’ favorite prime-time show — and his Fox cohorts ran some 18 segments about West Coast homelessness in August alone (there were none all last year), and the leader of the free world was watching. Trump then demanded his aides come up with a plan.
Ideas like William Barr’s Department of Justice and other federal agencies conducting a massive round-up in the tent cities that have popped up along Skid Row and in the Toy District of downtown Los Angeles — possibly to coincide with a Trump visit to California this Tuesday to (you can’t make this stuff up) hold glitzy fund-raisers with rich folks. And possible criminal treatment for those who don’t accept the feds’ entreaties to get cleaned up and relocated.
Wednesday night, the Post reported that an advance team of Trump administration officials in Southern California even toured a vacant Federal Aviation Administration facility with an eye toward warehousing homeless people there — to fulfill Trump’s Post-reported command to figure out “how the hell we can get these people off the streets.”
The Trump administration’s response to these beyond-alarming reports was not to call them alarming — just premature. “We’re not rounding people up or anything yet," an unnamed senior official told the Post. "You guys in the media get too ahead of yourselves.”
Possibly the most revealing — and the scariest — use of a three-letter word in American history. And, yet, less than three years into Trump’s golf-addled presidency, it’s also par for the course. A government that was swept into office amid chants of “Lock. Her. Up!” for Trump’s electoral opponent hasn’t been able to get Hillary Clinton behind bars (yet). But Team Trump’s approach to any marginalized “Other” has been to show zero compassion for their plight, yet position Dear Leader as “a man of action” getting “these people” off our streets, so Trump’s base of white, able-bodied, and home-owning supporters won’t have to look at or think about them anymore.
First they came for the refugees pouring across the Southern border to flee murder, rape, and gang violence in their native Central America, creating an American gulag archipelago sprawling across our border states, with tent cities, squalid detention centers where young migrants and others have died, and even outdoor facilities compared with a “dog pound.” Next up: a plan to show that Trump is taking real action to stop the spate of mass shootings, not by clamping down on access to guns but by massive big-government intervention to determine who is mentally ill and then warehouse them in the kind of institutions that were closed after the Willowbrook era.
Now, the president wants in the worst way to “intervene” in America’s homelessness crisis -- and he will, unless maybe the same aide who convinced Trump that dropping nuclear bombs on Atlantic hurricanes was a bad idea can get to him before Tuesday.
Here’s the thing: I’ve been to Los Angeles four times since Trump became president (starting with a delightful cross-country jaunt with my son in 2017). Each time, the crisis of human beings unable (or, yes, sometimes unwilling) to find affordable homes has grown more visible and more stunning, with bright tents pitched at every freeway off-ramp and in out-of-the-way spots like the busway near my son’s apartment in the San Fernando Valley. There are currently a gobsmacking 55,000 unhoused people in Los Angeles County — equal to the entire population of New Brunswick, N.J. — and, yes, local politicians who happen to be Democrats like California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti deserve criticism for not doing more to stem the tide.
But whatever Newsom, Garcetti, and other West Coast Dems need to be doing, I can assure you that it’s not the police-state round-up approach contemplated by Team Trump. That’s because the goals of Tucker Carlson, the Fox News Channel, and their No. 1 Viewer have nothing to do with empathy for those unable, in a land of gross inequality, to sleep with a solid roof over their head, and everything to do with scoring cheap political points that titillate and energize their “Lock her up!” fanboys going into 2020′s election.
Last week’s sudden flurry of so-called “homelessness policy" from the White House looks so familiar because just as with other so-called policies on immigration, disaster aid for Puerto Rico and now our neighbors in the Bahamas, travel to the U.S. from predominantly Muslim counties, and blaming gun violence on the mentally ill ... the cruelty is the point. That, and maybe the possibility that the private-prison ghouls who throw wads of money at the GOP will get a piece of the action, which could easily be expanded to new, lucrative Trumpville federal homeless shelters.
The tell that Trump doesn’t actually care one fig about America’s unhoused is always the same: His real day-to-day policies — i.e., the ones that aren’t driven by what he saw on Fox News last night — could have made homelessness even worse, including this year’s proposed drastic cuts in federal aid for housing for vulnerable people that were thankfully ignored by Congress.
“These are not serious policies,” Dennis P. Culhane, the social-policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania, considered one of the nation’s top experts on homelessness, told me of what he understands about the White House’s preliminary plans. He said he expected they would rely heavily on over-policing — which is frequently tried and never works — and 12-step or Salvation Army-type programs popular with religious conservatives. He said he believes such ideas are “basically a political document" and “a lot of theater.”
Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, agreed that locking up the homeless “has been a failure over and over again.” He said what’s also frustrating is that Trump’s blatantly political approach threatens to undo a decade of policy consensus that’s reduced the problem in many cities, including Philadelphia.
“The reason,” Berg said, “that we’ve been able to make some progress on homelessness is because Republicans and Democrats have seen that as a problem that should be solved with things we know work.” Neither Berg nor Culhane nor any other expert understands what authority the federal government might have to round up people now in tent cities.
If Trump and his aides were serious about reducing homelessness, Culhane told me, they would look at programs that provide money to people like senior citizens, the jobless, and veterans who want housing but can’t afford it. His top suggestion would be connecting the growing number of aging homeless people with Supplemental Security Income, or SSI — arguing that this $750 a month plus a small additional housing allowance could get many off the streets. As could redefining unemployment insurance so that millions of so-called “contractors” in the gig economy are covered.