Last week, President Donald Trump was on a Fox News program talking about how appalled he is by homelessness in U.S. cities. Good for him. We’re appalled, too. The richest, most powerful nation in the world should be embarrassed to have more than a half-million people on the streets or in shelters on any given night. President Trump went even further, telling host Tucker Carlson on Monday that some form of federal intervention was being contemplated.
Normally, we might be cheered by the thought of Washington taking on this chronic urban problem (adequate funding for existing HUD programs aimed at helping the homeless would be a great place to start), but the interview also revealed some apparent gaps in presidential knowledge. For instance, he described it as a “phenomenon that started two years ago” when it’s been a problem for at least 40 years and was actually substantially worse a decade ago. He associated it with liberalism when it’s a problem found in Red States and Blue States alike. And he blamed homeless people in Los Angeles for making police officers sick, a likely reference to recent outbreak of typhoid fever at an L.A. police station that serves Skid Row. The police union has blamed the problem on a nearby homeless encampment, but authorities believe is more likely due to contaminated food or sanitary problems within the station.
But let’s assume for a moment that President Trump is serious about reducing homelessness and that this isn’t just another exercise in political scapegoating or fear mongering, nor a desire to point accusatory fingers at left-leaning cities like New York and San Francisco, nor even an attempt to change the subject from his failed policies at the southern border and the homelessness of his own making in detention camps. What could the president do to reduce homelessness? Quite a bit actually. Here’s a step-by-step guide.
First, he should become better informed on the topic. Agencies within the federal government have actually been dealing with this issue for decades. Mr. Trump should sit down and hear his own experts out. He might learn, for example, that at the heart of the crisis isn’t mental health or addiction or criminal activity but something much more basic — a lack of affordable housing for low-income residents. Notice that the cities where the problem is most acute are among the nation’s most prosperous — and consequently, the most expensive. In San Francisco, it’s not unusual for a one-bedroom apartment to cost $4,000 a month or 333 hours of work at California’s $12-an-hour minimum wage (the equivalent of two months of 40-hour weeks if all your salary went into housing), or 266 hours (6.6 weeks) at San Francisco’s $15. He needs to understand the basics and what policies work and what doesn’t work.
Second, he should stop making the problem worse. The Trump administration has sought to cut HUD programs that serve the homeless and has twice asked for the elimination of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates efforts to address homelessness among federal agencies. Republicans may not like social safety net programs, but experience has shown they work — if done properly. An expanded Veterans Administration Supportive Housing program or VASH that assists homeless veterans would be a natural for this administration to champion.
Third, more public housing and housing vouchers are essential, but so are support services to go with them. In Baltimore, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced that city hospitals are contributing $2 million toward such efforts (helping people find housing, for example, and helping them learn to live independently), a move made possible by a Medicaid waiver that will match that contribution with federal dollars. That kind of creative approach holds great potential.
Fourth, resist the temptation to send in the police. Advocates like Kevin Lindamood of Health Care for the Homeless have seen what happens when you roust a homeless camp. The problem just goes somewhere else. “Criminalize the homeless and you just make it harder for them to find jobs,” he notes. “This isn’t a law enforcement problem.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the U.S. needs to pursue economic policies that provide opportunities for low-income workers and keep them from ever living on the streets in the first place. A higher minimum wage would help. So would universal health care, as medical emergencies can sometimes lead to disastrous financial circumstances for families. Mr. Trump admired the Japanese for their clean cities and lack of homeless. Guess what? They have a national health care system. The two things aren’t coincidental.