POLITICS
12/05/2019 17:32 EST | Updated 12/16/2019 16:16 EST

Robert Marbut's Nomination Signals A Big Shift In Homeless Policy

Housing first? More like housing fourth.

In the early 2000s, the George W. Bush administration embraced an approach to chronic homelessness that prioritized putting unsheltered people in homes. Housing First, as it came to be known, was part of the “compassionate conservatism” Bush touted to show that Republicans really do care about the less fortunate. 

Since 2007, that policy helped cut by 26% the number of people experiencing chronic patterns of homeless, according to the most recent report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Trump administration seems to be going in the opposite direction by nominating Robert Marbut to head the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). Marbut is a San Antonio, Texas-based community college professor who branched out as a homelessness containment expert in the mid-2000s. Cities hire him for advice on how to get homeless people off their downtown streets. 

Marbut tells officials to crack down on public food distribution, and he is definitely not a proponent of Housing First. “I believe in Housing Fourth,” he told HuffPost in 2015 for a story about his consulting work.

He did not respond to requests for comment for this article. 

Rhetorically, Trump is often fixated on the subject of chronic homelessness, suggesting he thinks it’s getting worse. He ousted Marbut’s predecessor last month and has reportedly been plotting some kind of crackdown on homeless people in California. And Trump doesn’t sound like he’s looking for a compassionate solution. 

“What they are doing to our beautiful California is a disgrace to our country,” Trump said at an August rally in Ohio. “Look at Los Angeles with the tents and the horrible, horrible disgusting conditions.” 

The number of homeless people in San Francisco and Los Angeles increased from 2018 to 2019, according to the most recent counts. 

Administration officials this week toured an unused jail building in Portland, Oregon, for possible use as a shelter (it’s not clear if it would be for Portland residents or people from California). Officials previously toured an empty federal building near Los Angeles. 

It would be plainly unconstitutional for the federal government to round up homeless people and force them into a shelter. But if Trump wants people off the street, and he wants them to go to a shelter, probably no better person could try to orchestrate that outcome than Marbut.

In his career as a consultant, Marbut often advised cities that the best way to get homeless people off the street is to build a big shelter to put them in. As far as the operations of such shelters, Marbut encouraged a relatively progressive model, one that would stay open during the day and wouldn’t turn people away if they were inebriated. 

In 2011, St. Petersburg, Florida, built a shelter on Marbut’s advice in an old Pinellas County jail building. Guests can come and go, but not everyone gets to sleep inside. The facility includes a large outdoor courtyard where residents might sleep if they’re drunk or if they’re being rude.

Marbut described it as a “penalty box” and said it improved conditions inside the shelter. I saw people sleeping on bare asphalt there in 2015 while there reporting on the implementation of Marbut’s strategy.

“It’s still a jail,” said G.W. Rolle, a St. Petersburg-based homelessness advocate who said he last visited the shelter, known as Safe Harbor, about six months ago.

We know that permanent housing with individually tailored supportive services is the solution to chronic homelessness.The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH)

Anti-homelessness advocates think so-called low barrier shelters that accommodate potentially unruly people can be a helpful part of the response to homelessness, but not the main part. And forcing people into shelters is bad. 

“It’s intended as a way to push people out of public sight into these punitive facilities that perpetuate this myth that homelessness is caused by individual choices that people need to be rehabilitated from,” said Eric Tars, legal director of the Washington-based National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Chronic homelessness is the most visible kind, but represents less than 20% of all homelessness, which is mostly driven by economic factors such as low pay and high housing costs. 

It’s generally local governments, not the federal government, that directly deal with people who are homeless. The USICH coordinates federal homelessness policy among 19 different agencies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Federal agencies can encourage local governments to offer permanent housing through grants, but they can’t write their laws. 

“We know that permanent housing with individually tailored supportive services is the solution to chronic homelessness,” the USICH says on its website, which also says local governments should strive to reduce the involvement of the criminal justice system, in part by not outlawing panhandling. 

Studies suggest permanent housing that includes access to social services such as counseling not only reduces homelessness, but can save the government money. When people have a place to stay, they might be less likely to incur costly hospital or jail visits.

In 2015, though, Marbut said giving someone housing before sorting out their mental health problems was like putting a heart attack victim on a treadmill instead of taking him to a hospital. 

The interagency council will take up and likely approve Marbut’s nomination at its meeting next week. 

A spokesman for the White House declined to comment.

Philip Mangano directed the interagency council for the George W. Bush administration and is largely responsible for getting the federal government on board with Housing First, an agenda followed by President Barack Obama’s administration. He said that before taking the job, he was unfamiliar with the research showing the possible effectiveness of the policy. 

“When you go to Washington, your perspective has to change,” Mangano said. “What worked in the past in your own work may not work. You have to broaden your perspective. You have to be humble in front of the issue.”