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As Trump targets California’s homeless crisis, a report from his Council of Economic Advisors lays out a policing-heavy blueprint for fixing the issue.
President Donald Trump capped off a week in which the White House spent considerable energy on the housing crisis in California by threatening to slap the city of San Francisco with a notice of environmental violation. The reason: water pollution caused by homeless people.
The administration appears to be on a war footing with local and state governments in California. That threat followed reports that White House officials were planning a crackdown on L.A.’s Skid Row and had toured a former federal office building near Los Angeles as a potential site for detaining hundreds or thousands of unhoused people. To complete the administration’s West Coast tour, Housing Secretary Ben Carson made crude remarks about transgender people, telling Bay Area staffers how “big, hairy men” could infiltrate women’s homeless shelters.
Like so many Infrastructure Weeks before it, Trump’s Housing Week did not exactly go off without a hitch, and it was partially overshadowed by other Trump scandals-in-progress. But it did produce a document that could have lasting consequences: the White House’s new report on homelessness. The paper, released by the Council of Economic Advisors, outlines what might be a conservative template for fixing homelessness: more police, more market-rate housing, and more strings attached to aid. The report takes a dim view of several traditional approaches and widely understood principles, contradicting even this administration’s own expert conclusions about what causes homelessness. Among housing advocates, it set off lots of alarm bells.
“Where to start?” says Megan Hustings, managing director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “We know that the number one cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. We began to see homelessness in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the federal budget for affordable housing programs was slashed by around 75 percent. Today, we spend more to subsidize home ownership than we do to assist the lowest-income households.”
The new report sets out the logic for a punitive approach to homelessness favored by the White House. It calls for a bigger role for law enforcement in policing unhoused people, questions the wisdom of Housing First (a strategy that calls for giving housing to chronically homeless people before addressing substance abuse or unemployment issues), and makes a broad case for deregulating housing markets as a solution for unhoused people. Housing advocates took issue with all three of those ideas.
“The report combines cherry-picked data, faulty analysis and inaccurate diagnosing of both the problem and its solutions,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in an email. “In addition to getting the fundamentals of homelessness wrong, their policy prescriptions completely miss the mark. Deregulation, increased policing and ‘self-sufficiency’ won’t end homelessness—affordable homes, and the federal subsidies that make them possible, will.”
One aspect of the report that startled advocates was the emphasis on law enforcement. Without providing specific details, the authors point to policing as a factor in the prevalence of unhoused people living on the streets. The report doesn’t provide any policy prescriptions, but it routinely describes policing as a factor in the “tolerability of living on the street,” especially on the West Coast.
“As an L.A. County sheriff once said to me, the only people who are on the street 24-7 are the homeless people and the police,” says Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “But the police in my experience don’t want to be responsible for homelessness. They really only have tools of coercion: arresting and ticketing.”
She adds, “The paper was clear that it’s not proper to criminalize or arrest people for being homeless. It still was chilling.”
The Council of Economic Advisors also questions the effectiveness of Housing First, which, while it’s not exactly a sacred cow, is probably the closest thing to a consensus shared by leaders in the overlapping spheres of affordable housing, opioid abuse, and social justice. While Europe is also grappling with an affordable housing crisis, Finland all but eliminated “rough sleeping” (people living outdoors) through Housing First principles. Other European nations are following suit. But the White House is unconvinced. “In fact, it is not clear that this strategy has been successful in reducing homeless populations,” the report reads.
Their argument against Housing First relies on supply and demand. It’s a winding, five-part case that holds that by reducing the number of homeless people through programs that don’t set any preconditions or requirements for their participation, Housing First policies might generate outcomes that actually increase the homeless population. You’ve been warned:
When permanent supportive housing is expanded, and all beds are filled by people experiencing homelessness, the number of homeless people mechanically falls by the number of additional beds. However, this initial reduction can be undone through several possible mechanisms. First, when people exit homeless shelters, the quality of shelters may increase as shelter operators seek to fill their now vacant beds, and homelessness could rise back up. Second, when people are removed from unsheltered environments, the street may become a less difficult place to sleep when it becomes less congested with homeless people who utilize the most sought after spots, again increasing the number of people who remain or fall into homelessness. Third, increasing housing demand may increase the price of housing, drawing additional people into homelessness and weakening the initial reduction in homelessness further. Fourth, the people who live in the new permanent beds may remain there longer than they would have otherwise remained homeless. To the extent that housing programs over time house people who otherwise would have no longer been homeless, they no longer have any effect on reducing homelessness until the unit becomes vacant and a new person is removed from homelessness. Fifth, the promise of housing for homeless people could encourage people to stay homeless longer in order to qualify. Thus, the long-run reduction in the number of homeless people may be smaller than the original decline in homelessness that mechanically occurs from housing homeless people.
Reasonable minds may quibble with the counts, Roman says, but she disagrees categorically with the way the White House frames the federal government’s responses to homelessness. With this report, the White House appears to be saying that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has shifted funding from transitional housing to rapid re-housing without any change in status for the people affected. But while people living in transitional housing (facilities that provide services) are still unhoused, people living in rapid re-housing in fact have homes.
In making their case against Housing First, the White House report cites research on rents and homelessness from Maria Hanratty, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota. She says that, while permanent supportive housing might not make an obvious dent in overall homelessness, it’s still a cost-effective strategy.
“If most units are targeted to people who would otherwise remain homeless for a relatively short amount of time, each unit of additional housing will have a relatively small impact on measured homelessness. This does not mean supportive housing does not ‘work,’ since it also increases housing stability and decreases rent burdens,” Hanratty says in an email. “For single adults, it reduces use of other costly services, such as hospital and [emergency room] care, inpatient services, jails, and shelters.”
Just last year, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness—the agency tasked with coordinating the federal government’s response to homelessness—produced a report that outlined all the ways the federal government could promote Housing First across the country. (This council had no input on the report produced by the Council of Economic Advisors.) While the new White House report is a position paper, not a policy paper, there’s no explanation provided for why imposing service participation requirements for people living in permanent supportive housing would have a substantially different outcome under the five-part cascading sequence of unintended consequences outlined for Housing First.
“Generally speaking, people do better with services when they’re voluntary, and the services tend to be better when they’re voluntary, because then you have to provide services that people actually want and they feel help them address their issues—versus what you think that they ought to want,” Roman says.
Housing deregulation is probably the core of the report outlined by the Council Advisors. That lines up with the Trump administration’s overall position on housing—from Carson’s enthusiasm for breaking up exclusionary zoning to the housing plan that the Domestic Policy Council is drafting. Trump signed an executive order establishing a White House Council on Eliminating Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing in June.
While making it easier to build housing could ease the affordability crisis, it may be hard to achieve those reforms, Hanratty says. Several of the Democratic Party primary candidates have outlined housing plans with various strategies to promote new construction, but all of them would require sweeping new legislation. And in practice, deregulation might not produce housing that is affordable to very low-income families or people with substance-abuse or mental-health afflictions without subsidies.
Subsidy is a word that doesn’t appear much in the White House guide to homelessness policy. There’s only a single mention of the the HUD–Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, which has had tremendous success in bringing down the number of homeless veterans in the U.S.—success that this report acknowledges but does not heed. Instead, the White House warns that the lure of subsidies could even drive people to homelessness.
“If people who end up in homeless shelters are provided rental subsidies or other forms of assistance, this could increase the incentive for people to turn to shelters in the first place or to stay in shelters longer,” the report reads. That’s not how advocates see it. It’s not how the White House agency with expertise sees it. And it’s not even how the president sees it (or used to see it).
“Shelters, our sidewalks, and parks are not comfortable or appropriate places for our neighbors to live, and are places of absolute last resort,” Hustings says. “We create further barriers to housing for our neighbors most in need when we blame them for being victims of our economic and housing failures.”
“I think living outside is already intolerable,” Roman says. “People don’t choose it unless the alternative is really horrible.”
Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics.