Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
President Trump reportedly ordered officials to wade into the homeless crisis in Los Angeles. But local leaders are wary of federal involvement.
The White House is planning a crackdown on people experiencing homelessness in California—a federal intervention in Los Angeles and other cities that is raising red flags among advocates for the homeless and city leaders.
According to a report in the Washington Post, President Donald Trump has ordered White House officials to come up with a solution to the visible homelessness crisis in Los Angeles and possibly other California cities. Officials from the White House, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other agencies—including some who are meeting this week with their counterparts in Los Angeles—are weighing several possible steps, including moving homeless people into facilities administered by the federal government and razing encampments.
The White House appears to be targeting people living in Los Angeles’s downtown Skid Row area, where much of the city’s soaring unhoused population is concentrated. The homelessness rate in the city of Los Angeles spiked 16 percent this year, according to the annual point-in-time count. Officials with the city could not comment on any particular plans or discussions underway.
“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,” Alex Comisar, deputy communications director for Mayor Garcetti, said in an email. “We welcome them and look forward to showing them our work to confront this humanitarian emergency.”
As housing costs have boomed in several California cities, the state has seen its homeless population rise substantially in recent years. A federal intervention of the type that the White House appears to be contemplating, including the possibility that sweeps would be paired with mass round-ups and institutionalizations of unhoused residents, would represent something unprecedented, and housing authorities and some city officials responded with wariness to the Post report.
In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed acknowledged the scope of the city’s homelessness problem and highlighted the city’s investments in navigation centers, affordable housing, and supportive housing. She also said she’d welcome more federal support on that front. “The decline in federal resources for affordable housing has been significant, and cities can’t do it alone,” she said in an emailed statement. “But simply cracking down on homelessness without providing the housing that people need is not a real solution and will likely only make the situation worse.” The mayor’s office said it had not been contacted by the Trump administration about a meeting at City Hall or a tour of encampments.
The White House’s focus on homelessness comes in the wake of a series of comments the president made to Fox News in July. In an interview, Trump told Tucker Carlson that homelessness was a phenomenon that “started two years ago,” and that he “may intercede and do something to get that whole thing cleaned up.” Both Garcetti and California Governor Gavin Newsom criticized the president after those comments.
Trump’s interest in homelessness could be interpreted in the context of his frequent disparaging comments about American urban areas—particularly majority-black cities such as Chicago and Baltimore, according to Karen Lincoln, an associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California. While only 9 percent of the population of Los Angeles is African American, about 40 percent of the city’s homeless population is black, she says. Latinos and Latinas make up a similar share. The demographics of homelessness—and the fact that Los Angeles and other California cities are led by liberal Democrats—may be the best frame for understanding the report. “It seems like the [Trump administration’s] approach is going to be more punitive just because of the way that African-American and poor people and Latinos have been constructed in the current rhetoric of this administration,” Lincoln says.
Still, the strategies that the White House appears to be contemplating are not wholly dissimilar from the efforts now being pursued by local and state authorities to address homelessness by removing unhoused people and criminalizing living on the streets, even as they pour funding into permanent supportive housing and the shelter system.
This month, for example, Los Angeles officials are considering a plan that would prohibit unhoused people from sleeping on the streets within 500 feet of schools, parks, and other public spaces, the L.A. Times reported. This could make nearly one-quarter of the city off-limits for the 15,000 unsheltered homeless residents who sleep on Los Angeles’s streets. This July, the city extended a ban on those living in vans, campers, and RVs in residential neighborhoods. About 16,500 residents of L.A. County sleep in their cars.
In San Francisco, the city’s Healthy Streets Operation Center has been expanded since Breed took office last year. The program takes in 311 complaints about visual signs of homelessness and deploys resources to clear unhoused people and their belongings. Last year, Breed credited the program with helping reduce the number of tents on the street by 34 percent in four months. In Oakland, a homeless encampment that has been deemed a fire hazard is expected to be cleared this week, after weeks of delays. Another Oakland encampment is slated for clearance soon; its 100 residents will be offered shelter and safe parking spots. (This summer, a real estate developer offered unhoused residents $1,000 each to move off the property, because he thought the city was being too permissive.)
Advocates for the homeless stress that, in addition to disrupting communities and destroying personal property, these sweeps are expensive: In 2015, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the city spent $3 million a year on evicting people from encampments, and Los Angeles is on track to spend $30 million on the practice this year, LAist reported, up from $13 million the year before.
It’s not clear what legal authority a president would have to clear homeless camps at the city level, as the Post notes. Those sleeping on the streets are not violating federal law and the government has no power to arrest unhoused people on federal charges, according to Steve Berg, the vice president for programs and policy with the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “The federal government doesn’t have a legal authority to make people who are homeless go anywhere they don’t want to go,” Berg says.
Criminalizing homelessness only exacerbates the problem, he adds, by burdening those living on the streets with criminal records that make it harder to find employment and permanent housing.
It could take a radical executive order or a declaration of a state of emergency to enable federal law enforcement to police the unhoused community in any state or city. But the federal government could bring significant resources to bear in other ways: Solutions to homelessness in California don’t lack for knowledge, Berg says, but for funding. “If the federal government could put some resources on the table, that would be incredibly helpful,” he says. “If they’re treating it as an emergency the same way they would treat a hurricane, there’s a great deal that can be done there.”
Despite the president’s insistence to the contrary, the modern homelessness crisis has roots that date back far longer than the current administration. “We didn’t really start seeing homelessness as a mass phenomenon and a long-term experience until the ‘80s, when Reagan divested from HUD,” says Olivia Glowacki, a project manager for San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness. “If [Trump] really wanted to end homelessness, he has the power to do so, at least in America.” Her most urgent need right now is funding. “As of yesterday, there were 1,500 people on the waitlist” for shelter spaces in San Francisco. “We just don’t have the capacity to care for our homeless folks right now.”
If the president was truly interested in ending homelessness in America, targeted investments in homelessness services and bolstering HUD’s affordable housing resources would be a good place to start, advocates say. The White House could also call on its own resident experts. For example, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the agency tasked with coordinating the federal response to this crisis, recently produced a round-up of “Housing First” solutions. These are evidence-based strategies for “removing as many obstacles and unnecessary requirements as possible in order to expedite people’s access to stable housing.” The council has not been reported to be involved with the L.A. talks. (CityLab has not received a response to a request for comment.)
But so far, the Trump administration’s policies stand to make the homelessness crisis worse, housing experts warn. A plan to restrict prorated housing aid for families with mixed immigration status could evict more than 55,000 children, according to HUD’s own analysis, even though as citizens these children are eligible for aid. Every budget proposed by this White House has included cuts that would slash billions in funds for housing aid.
In brokering talks with the Los Angeles mayor’s office, the Trump administration appears to be open to some level of collaboration. But other city leaders in California sense that the president intends to use Skid Row as a stage for political theater.
“Homelessness is not a partisan issue, and we shouldn’t make it one. Both Democrats and Republicans are dying on our streets,” said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo in a statement. That city has also seen a sharp increase in the number of people living unsheltered. “I welcome any federal investment in solutions that work: first and foremost, more housing, along with mental health treatment, drug treatment, and job training. The federal government can and should partner in tackling this challenge, but it requires a serious effort—this isn’t a problem that the President can redirect with a Sharpie.”