(November 22, 2019, Washington, DC)—Last Friday, the White House removed the Executive Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), Matthew Doherty, raising concerns that it plans to move forward with a political, rather than evidence-based, strategy to addressing homelessness in California and across the country.
Doherty’s forced departure comes months after the Council of Economic Advisors released a white paper that ignores and directly contradicts the evidence-based consensus of USICH—19 of the Administration’s own agencies. Last year, those agencies published the Federal Strategic Plan to End Homelessness, stating that housing, low barrier shelter, and decriminalization is the best way to end homelessness.
“We agree with the President that homelessness in America is a disgrace. It’s a disgrace that in the richest country on earth our fellow Americans are sleeping on the streets and eating out of garbage cans. But the solution is increased investment in affordable housing—and the proven, evidence-based housing first model” said Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (Law Center). “Instead, the Administration’s white paper promotes discredited and inhumane law enforcement strategies that exacerbate the crisis, waste tax payer dollars, and raise constitutional concerns.”
The White House report acknowledges, “Policies intended solely to arrest or jail homeless people simply because they are homeless are inhumane and wrong.” But then it goes on to say homeless people are “too comfortable” and “…when paired with effective services, policing may be an important tool to help move people off the street and into shelter or housing…”
However, we know these ideas are unfounded; funding is so inadequate that only one of four people impoverished enough to qualify for help actually receive it. Additionally, current federal estimates state there are only 286,203 emergency shelter beds for 553,000 people—this is almost certainly a gross underestimate of the gap, and beds that do exist may have religious, gender, ability, or other barriers to people accessing them.
“The President’s white paper claims that the streets and shelters are somehow ‘too comfortable’, which discourages people from getting out of homelessness,” said Eric Tars, Legal Director of the Law Center. “How is giving someone an arrest record or a fine they can’t pay for sleeping on the streets going to help them when there isn’t a legal place for them to be?”
Most worrisome is that this white paper appears to be lay a policy basis for what Trump is reported to be considering—to raze encampments and simply “sweep” people off the streets. Such policies waste law enforcement resources on non-violent offenders, forces law enforcement into confrontations with individuals in crisis that they are not well-trained to handle, and essentially uses the most expensive form of housing—jail cells—as our de facto shelter system.
This approach is worse than even doing nothing. It expends public dollars in a way that, rather than ending homelessness, prolongs it by saddling already burdened people with criminal records and fines for the “crime” of simply trying to survive.
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (the Law Center) is the only national organization dedicated solely to using the power of the law to prevent and end homelessness. With the support of a large network of pro bono lawyers, we address the immediate and long-term needs of people who are homeless or at risk through outreach and training, advocacy, impact litigation, and public education.