Trump orders crackdown on homelessness in California, as White House officials survey LA area’s ‘crisis’

President Donald Trump has directed White House officials to take on California’s homelessness crisis, including the encampments that fill many streets in and around Los Angeles, it was reported Tuesday.

The news comes as aides with the Los Angeles mayor’s office met Tuesday with a delegation from the White House to discuss strategies for combating homelessness.

The mayor’s staff gave Trump Administration officials a tour of the city’s unified homelessness response Center, the Jordan Downs public housing complex that is undergoing redevelopment, prefabricated Flyaway Homes, and an emergency shelter in South Los Angeles.

“Our office learned very recently of the Administration’s plans to visit L.A., to learn more about our strategies for responding to the homelessness crisis,” said Alex Comisar, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti. “We welcome them and look forward to showing them our work to confront this humanitarian emergency.”

A recent count found that there are more than 36,000 people who are homeless in the city of Los Angeles, a 16% jump from the previous year. Throughout Southern California, a lack of shelter has also taken its toll, even in smaller cities. In the San Gabriel Valley, Azusa saw a 127% from 2018 to 2019, for a total of 325 people counted one night in January. And closer to the coast, the South Bay — which includes the cities of Torrance, Redondo Beach, and L.A. neighborhoods such as San Pedro and Wilmington — had an estimated 4,388 people identified as homeless in 2019, a 6% increase from the previous year.

Top federal officials have told the Washington Post that representatives from the White House and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are in California this week for meetings, and that Los Angeles’s skid row is one of the key areas they are interested in.

The ideas being discussed include taking down homeless tent encampments, setting up temporary facilities or revamping government buildings, officials told the national publication. The Washington Post story said that it was unclear what legal authorities the federal government would have to carry out the plans now being developed.

Some have viewed Trump’s efforts as targeting Democratic leaders in California, with Trump frequently blaming Democratic officials for the magnitude of the homelessness crisis in the state.

Trump signed an executive order in June that created a council to look into removing “regulatory barriers” that drive up the cost of constructing housing.

“Like many Americans, the president has taken notice of the homelessness crisis, particularly in cities and states where the liberal policies are combining to dramatically increase poverty and public health risks,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere, who added that Trump has “taken notice of the homelessness crisis particularly in cities and states where the liberal policies are combining to dramatically increase poverty and public health risks.

“President Trump has directed his team to go further and develop a range of policy options for consideration to deal with this tragedy,” Deere said.

Meanwhile, some experts on housing say that homelessness is happening as housing costs have gone up, and made worse by cuts to funds that support federal housing programs.

Some local advocates of housing for the homeless pointed to the efforts taken up under past administrations on addressing homelessness.

“Veterans homelessness has decreased by 50% across this country since 2010 thanks, in large part, to the work of the federal government,” said Tommy Newman, who manages the United Way of Greater L.A.’s Everyone In campaign that is drumming up public support for permanent supportive housing.

Those figures were released in August 2016, with officials at the time attributing some of the success to a 2014 initiative by Michelle Obama, the first wife of former President Barack Obama, to increase efforts on reducing veteran homelessness.

“They didn’t ‘crack-down’ or look for quick fixes — the progress is a result of investing in permanent housing and supportive services,” he said. “Our hope is that if anything comes out of the recent attention from the Trump Administration, it’s that they take the learnings from the work to end veterans homelessness and apply them more broadly.”

Los Angeles-based attorney Carol Sobel, a long-time advocate for the rights of homeless people, was skeptical of what would come out administration officials’ visit to Los Angeles visit this week.

Sobel said she believes that the president’s motives are purely political, pointing to Trump’s ongoing feuds with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who is from San Francisco, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom

“It’s him trying to figure out how to embarrass some of his critics,” said Sobel, one of the lead attorneys representing homeless people on Skid Row in the Jones v. City of Los Angeles settlement of 2007.

Sobel said the president should be looking internally at harmful existing and proposed federal government policies.

She pointed to Trump Administration proposals that include changes to the federal poverty level that would make it harder for people to qualify for assistance, budget reductions in spending on Medicaid and Medicare, and a recent directive to the Department of Housing and Urban Development to deny Section 8 vouchers to “mixed-status households” with a family member who is in the United States illegally. The proposed rule issued by HUD in May would change regulations that govern public housing and other HUD housing assistance programs by requiring anyone under the age of 62 to verify eligible immigration status.

“He needs to look at HUD. He needs to look at the VA and say what is it that the federal government is doing that is contributing to homelessness in Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Sobel said.

The Jones settlement decriminalized sleeping on the street at night until the city could build more homeless housing.

She said that Trump does have a role to play, such as by increasing the federal minimum wage, which has not been raised in decades, to keep more people from falling into homelessness. He should also look into expediting the long-planned housing for homeless military veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles, she said.

If there is surplus federal property available, such land is supposed to be prioritized under federal law for homeless people, Sobel added.

“Give it to the city and the county to create a facility,” she said.

The same repurposing could be done with old federal buildings and former military property in Orange County, where she also has been involved in federal lawsuits on behalf of homeless people, she said.

Councilman Joe Buscaino also pointed to policies that the federal government has proposed, such as around immigration — another major issue of the president’s — would worsen homelessness in Los Angeles.

An aide to Buscaino was on the tour being given to federal officials Tuesday of Jordan Downs public housing, where many immigrant families with members who are here in the country illegally, could become homeless if they were to be disqualified from living there.

“If the president is serious about reducing homelessness, he should stop the proposed HUD rule change that would kick mixed-status families out of public housing across the country,” Buscaino said.

Branimir Kvartuc, communications director for Buscaino, added that city leaders are “happy to accept funding as long as we have local control on how to spend it.”

The visit by federal officials comes at a politically vulnerable time for leaders in Los Angeles, who are scrambling to show progress as frustration grows around the issue.

Few events drew more attention than when Cal/OSHA inspectors raised concerns in August that workers at a downtown City Hall building, including those who work in the City Attorney’s Office, were exposed to “trash and bodily fluids” on exterior passageways.

The mayor and other elected officials were also hit by a $5 million claim from Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney Elizabeth Greenwood, a San Pedro resident, that said leaders allowed trash outside her office to become a public health threat. Greenwood contracted flea-borne typhus late last year.

For Greenwood, any help is “welcome,” especially if the city is unable to adequately address sanitary problems in the city. If federal funds also could address the city’s growing cleanup issues, she said, “come one, come all.”

Los Angeles city officials are in the midst of revamping sanitation crews to better cater to the demands created by people living outdoors, in the public. The new CARE teams are aimed at address sanitation issues, by providing trash cans and restroom units, as they do clean-ups, and were scheduled to roll out in October.

Meanwhile others say that there has not been enough discussion or leadership taken on some of the thornier aspects of addressing Los Angeles’s homelessness crisis.

San Pedro graphic artist George Palaziol, who has followed the homeless issue closely and participated in community cleanups and fundraisers for Harbor Interfaith Shelter, said he wonders whether anything is being done to address people who are tougher to help.

“I’m still waiting for legislation that targets the vagrants and transients, (that separates) those who want help and those who don’t,” he said.

Palaziol said that he gets the sense “we don’t have a grasp on the situation. … L.A. is a massive city.”

Don Larson, a Northridge resident who leads clean-up teams with volunteers who are homeless, said he welcomes different perspectives from leaders on the issue.

While for many others the solution to homelessness lies in creating more housing, Larson said attention needs to be placed on the many people who remain on the streets, and are in need of more extensive help.

He said that in doing his work, he finds that many of the people he encounters do struggle with addiction and mental health issues, but “we’re just not getting to that point yet where we can take care of those people.”

“We need a few more voices in here that can make sense of the homelessness problem,” Larson said. “It’s not all about tiny houses. It’s about mental health and addiction, from where I come from.”

The federal government could play a bigger role with bringing in more funding to provide “nursing beds” and care for those people, he said.

Meanwhile, some within the city of L.A., such as Controller Ron Galperin, have pointed to deficiencies with the way the region tackles homelessness. In a harshly worded audit, the controller pointed to homeless outreach goals that were not met, particularly around working with people who are dealing with mental illness and drug addiction.

Heidi Marston, an official with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which is funded by the federal government that it then distributes to local organizations, defended itself against Galperin’s audit of their outreach programs.

“The challenge we have in our system is that going from homelessness to being housed is not a linear issue,” Marston said adding that more housing resources are needed “at the back end.”

Some working on the ground to tackle homelessness worried that the partisan tone surrounding the president’s visit to California is detracting focus from the issue.

“Problems are seldom resolved from a top-down, condescending edict,” said Ken Craft, who runs Hope of the Valley, a San Fernando Valley group that operates shelters and services for the homeless.

“If the president of the United States is serious about addressing the homeless crisis, come to L.A. and sit with leaders and practitioners and let’s together formulate a plan of action that can quickly be deployed and maintained,” he said.

Those sentiments were echoed by Amber Sheikh Ginsberg of San Pedro, who sits on Mayor Garcetti’s Harbor Area homelessness Organizing Committee and heads up a homelessness working group in the 15th Council District.

“We actually know what it takes to solve this — if the federal government truly wants to help, they can provide the resources we need to fund more of what we know already works.”

By Elizabeth Chou, Daily News, Los Angeles

Tribune News Service

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