photo: Robert Marbut, the incoming director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness,
Robert Marbut, the incoming director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, pictured in 2011 at the Pinellas Safe Harbor facility in St. Petersburg, Florida. Chris O'Meara/AP

In Texas and Florida, Robert Marbut Jr. sold cities on a controversial model for providing homeless services. Now he’s bringing it to the White House.

Panhandling is a gateway to vice: That’s the claim on which Robert Marbut Jr. has staked his entire career.

According to Marbut, a consultant who’s spent the last decade advising cities on how to manage services for people living in homelessness, those who panhandle on the streets spend 93 percent of the money they receive on drugs, alcohol, or sex. He’s repeated that figure in dozens of appearances before city councils and media outlets, including an interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin in 2014. When the Weekend Edition host pressed for details, Marbut replied, “We’ve done a lot of research.”

That 93 percent figure has always bothered Jeremy Alderson, a journalist and activist who bristled when local agencies in Sarasota, Florida, hired Marbut in 2013 to help them come up with a strategy. How, exactly, would a researcher find out how much a person living on the street paid to a drug dealer? Or to a sex worker?

“If you were homeless, what would you think if a stranger came up to you, asked if you were homeless, gave you some money, and then started following you around?” asks Alderson, who interviewed Marbut about his methods in 2015. (Marbut did not agree to an interview with CityLab in time for this story and did not respond to questions.)

Other experts question whether any research exists to support such a claim. The data is weak across the board, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. One survey conducted in Toronto nearly 20 years ago found that the single largest reported expense for panhandlers was food (followed by tobacco, then alcohol, then illicit drugs). Samantha Batko of the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center agrees that there’s nothing in the published literature on homelessness that adds up to the figure that Marbut has used. “While panhandlers do report spending money on alcohol and substances in surveys, these same surveys show that food is their primary expense,” she says.

Still, Marbut has successfully used that striking stat to help build a career promoting his signature “velvet hammer” strategy—a policing-heavy model that emphasizes banning panhandling, centralizing services for the homeless in massive facilities far from urban centers, and providing food and shelter only as a reward for good behavior. Over the last decade, Marbut has convinced hundreds of cities and counties across the nation to pay for his advice. His next stop: the White House.

On Tuesday, the federal task force that coordinates the government’s actions on homelessness approved Marbut as its new director. The Trump administration tapped him to head up the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, coordinating initiatives for people without housing across 19 different federal agencies.

Even before the council, known as USICH, took its vote, housing advocates and progressives in Congress raised red flags. A group of 75 members of Congress signed a letter to President Donald Trump this week to register their dismay with the appointment, calling Marbut “unqualified, unprepared, and disdainful of the mission of the critically important federal agency which he has been appointed to lead.” The letter further says:

We are very concerned that the Trump administration would pick someone whose professional work is based on practices that are cruel, punitive, ineffectual, and expensive to run the only federal agency tasked with ending homelessness.

Marbut, a former San Antonio city councilman, is best known as the founder of Haven for Hope, a vast shelter complex on San Antonio’s West Side that has been the focus of much controversy since it opened in 2010. Billed as a “transformational campus,” the 17-building complex features a surface lot called the Prospects Courtyard, where between 700 and 900 people may sleep at night on concrete, exposed to the elements. Residents struggling with substance abuse won’t find shelter in the part of the facility that provides roofs overhead until they pass a required drug test.

Marbut’s time at Haven for Hope was short lived: Within a year, the founding CEO was out. But he’s since exported the model he established there to other cities, and advocates now fear that it will serve as a national template as he assumes his new capacity as the Trump administration’s go-to on homelessness. Worse, they say, his approach flies in the face of evidence-based practices developed and supported by housing groups—including, until now, USICH itself.

“[Marbut’s] goal seems to be to try to fix what he perceives to be individual flaws with punitive and dehumanizing tactics while completely ignoring the clear and obvious structural flaws that create and exacerbate homelessness,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO for the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “It strikes me as a throwback to 19th-century poor houses.”

A Trump-era turn to “Housing Fourth”

To understand why Marbut’s arrival at USICH is meeting such resistance from veterans in the field, a bit of background is helpful. For years, U.S. advocates for addressing homelessness have pursued a model known as Housing First, a philosophy that calls for providing permanent housing to people before addressing other chronic concerns, such as substance abuse or mental health disorders. It’s also the approach that has been credited with dramatic successes treating homelessness in cities like Helsinki, Finland.

Housing First was the letter of the law at USICH as recently as last year; the council released a report affirming its commitment to Housing First in July 2018.

“[USICH] is a very important agency, and over the past few years, it has emphasized the things that we all feel learning from experience work better, like Housing First approaches,” says Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “We’ll be hoping that if they do have a new initiative around homelessness, it will focus on those things that evidence has shown to work.”

Marbut’s USICH appointment comes as the White House has signaled an aggressive new interest in homelessness—particularly, if not exclusively, in liberal cities on the West Coast, where conservatives often highlight homelessness as a vivid illustration of Democratic misrule. For a week in September, the Trump administration appeared to be laser-focused on the problem. An entourage of White House officials visited Los Angeles and San Francisco to surveil the crisis locally. As rumors spread of a looming crackdown on the unhoused community that lives on L.A.’s Skid Row, officials toured a former federal facility located just outside the city, a potential warehouse for their mass relocation.

The visit by officials, among them U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, made headlines and unnerved housing groups and California leaders, but no raids on Skid Row or roundups in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood were forthcoming. The visit did, however, culminate in a White House report (produced by the Council of Economic Advisors) that cast a dim light on the Housing First strategy. Housing advocates immediately cried foul over the report’s embrace of law enforcement as a solution and its circular suggestion that housing aid incentivizes homelessness.

In mid-November, the White House asked for the resignation of Matthew Doherty, an Obama appointee who had led USICH since 2015. In his replacement, the Trump administration appears to have found its champion; Marbut once referred to his own view as “Housing Fourth.” The rough idea: Don’t give people living on the streets food, money, or a roof over their heads until they solve the behaviors that caused them to be homeless—failings that are personal, never systemic. Marbut’s principles for transformation put the blame for homelessness on people first.

In Texas, a surge in homelessness—and a powerful pushback

Marbut has deep roots in San Antonio. His father, local businessman Bob Marbut, is the former CEO of the Texas media giant Harte Hanks. Marbut Jr. served two terms on the San Antonio City Council; he also worked as a civics professor at a community college. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, then-Mayor Phil Hardberger tapped Marbut to coordinate the city’s response to storm refugees who moved to Texas cities. Five years later, Marbut founded his first “transformational campus,” Haven for Hope.

Marbut has claimed radical reductions in homelessness in San Antonio (and other cities where he’s worked). An October 2019 article in The Coloradoan points to an 80 percent decline in downtown homelessness in San Antonio as an argument for adopting a similar model in Fort Collins. Only there wasn’t any 80 percent decline in San Antonio: Point-in-time counts show an overall increase in homelessness citywide over the decade. Warehousing homeless people on the city’s poorer West Side may only have succeeded in shifting them out of central business districts and tourism areas.

In particular, Haven for Hope’s open courtyard quickly garnered a reputation as a place of despair: Residents at the shelter report hundreds of crimes every year, including assaults, rapes, and threats of terror. Between 2012 and 2014, police registered about 800 calls per year to Haven for Hope. San Antonians say that people who use the shelter refer to it as the “Haven for Dope.” (Haven for Hope did not respond to CityLab’s interview requests.)  

Some of these criticisms manifested very soon after the shelter’s establishment, and the reality on the ground may be worse than even 911 calls let on. According to Josh Brodesky, columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, in-house security officers at Haven for Hope have addressed thousands of violent incidents. CityLab’s review of San Antonio’s 2020 budget finds that the city spends almost as much on security at the Prospects Courtyard ($1,103,916) as it does for services for the people who sleep there ($1,112,971).

Among the critics of Marbut’s approach, and his new USICH role, is Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro, who was San Antonio’s mayor when Marbut opened Haven for Hope. “As HUD Secretary, I advanced the Housing First model as the most effective way to improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness,” he tells CityLab by email. “In the Obama administration, we reduced veteran homelessness by nearly half, and I’m convinced that’s the leadership and action we need as a nation.”

Castro adds, “There is nothing wrong with people who are poor or have fallen into difficult times, and we need to build a country where everyone counts.”

While the state’s struggles with the issue receive less national attention than in California, cities in Texas are also experiencing a surge in homelessness. It’s hard to say for certain how much the unhoused population in San Antonio has grown, given the difficulty in gaining accurate counts, but encampments have grown far more conspicuous in recent years. Up the road in Austin, the local government has sought to fully legalize encampments, a move that drew the wrath of Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who ordered the camps razed and authorized a temporary camp site. The five-acre plot is near the airport, far away from downtown.

Among most local leaders in Texas, Housing First is not part of the conversation. “Other cities are looking to the Housing First philosophy,” says María Berriozábal, a social justice activist and former San Antonio City Council member. Not hers, she laments. “We have not delved into that in San Antonio.”

Out of sight, out of mind

Since leaving Haven for Hope, Marbut has worked as a consultant, selling his transformational model to other cities. In Florida, those efforts have yielded contracts, but they’ve also drawn intense scrutiny from housing activists. One group even published a fact-checking brochure and deck to address claims made by Marbut, with a point-by-point rebuttal to the consultant’s overall pitch.

These factsheets, produced by a consultant firm focused on ending homelessness called OrgCode, zero in on claims attributed to Marbut in order to “ensure that potential stakeholders who are invested in ending homelessness have the correct information as they make strategic investments.”

One fact-check concerns a program Marbut helped to launch in St. Petersburg, Florida. Local officials in St. Pete visited Haven for Hope in 2010 and liked what they saw, so they hired Marbut—at a rate of $5,300 per month. Pinellas Safe Harbor, a former jail repurposed as a shelter and operated by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, brought Marbut to the attention of Clearwater and other Florida cities. In a pitch to Daytona Beach in 2015, Marbut said that the St. Petersburg facility had helped the city reach “functional zero” levels of street homelessness.

That’s an illusion, says Iain De Jong, president and CEO of OrgCode. He says that the count that Marbut relies on was produced by the police who run Pinellas Safe Harbor, and that local law enforcement juke the stats in how they enforce a regulation that bans sleeping on sidewalks. The strategy boils down to “jail diversion”—services that divert homelessness without addressing it, he says.

“It’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to homelessness,” De Jong says.

That’s the same concern that critics such as Yentel are voicing now. “Robert Marbut has a patronizing, shaming, blaming, condescending approach,” she says. “While it might hide homelessness, especially from downtown businesses or from people who are offended by the sight of homeless people, it does nothing to end or even alleviate homelessness.”

At least one California city may have heeded that message. Ten years ago, the Fresno Business Council and some 60 community groups engaged Marbut for an assessment. He proposed a large shelter campus based on his San Antonio model. Local authorities looked into it, but they couldn’t make his numbers work, according to Preston Prince, executive director of the Fresno Housing Authority. “We could not find data that showed the large campus resulted in people ending up in permanent housing,” Prince says. “What we were seeing was that very vulnerable people would end up at Prospect Courtyard at Haven for Hope and not move up and out of the system. They, instead, would find themselves back out on the street.”

Instead, Fresno decided to go with a Housing First model, focusing on a coordinated entry system to find permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals and rapid re-housing for people who suddenly find themselves out on the street. From 2011 to 2017, Fresno saw its point-in-time homelessness counts decline by 60 percent. While that number has crept up over the last few years, the city, county, and its partners are still committed to Housing First principles. “Really, all of the best practices coming out of USICH over the last 10 years,” Prince says.

Some advocates fear that a key annual report from HUD on homelessness—which is due to Congress any day now—could prompt the sweeping action foreshadowed back in the fall, especially if the new count reveals a widely anticipated surge in homelessness in California.

During their California tour, Trump administration officials visited a former Federal Aviation Administration building in Hawthorne, California, near Los Angeles International Airport. The place has all the makings of a Marbut project: a big warehouse-type facility far outside the downtown city center. As of Tuesday, Marbut is in a position to turn his philosophy into federal action.

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