“That seemed very political,” she said in an interview, noting how battle lines hardened shortly after the hearing and after Republicans lost control of the House.
“Making it a political issue doesn’t help,” she said. “In the past, we have been able to say it’s not one size fits all.”
Whether it’s invisible or viewed as an everyday nuisance, the growing scrutiny from Trump and other Republican officials has teed homelessness up as a political dart against city- and state-level Democrats already struggling to get a handle on the issue. The issue has become so fraught in California it imperils the political future of Gov. Gavin Newsom, a frequent Trump critic, who devoted his State of the State address this month to the “pernicious crisis in our midst.” It’s also dogged liberals like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has called on the federal government for help and setup yet another feud between Trump and the California congressional delegation.
Trump is seizing on these new cityscapes to prod Democrats like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio just as his messaging counters steady — albeit slow — progress on policies anti-homelessness activists considered settled.
Homelessness is “a salient political foil for the president to talk to other states and say ‘Look at California. See how crazy they are? Do you really want that?’” said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who is part of the Lincoln Project, a GOP effort to challenge Trump.
After a decade-long decline, the nation’s homelessness rate has ticked up over the past few years. And as new skyscrapers spring up in urban landscapes, many of the nation’s homeless have taken to living in tent cities, a new set of semi-permanent fixtures. Housing First advocates argue economic growth, low unemployment and a shortage of new affordable residential construction have combined to drive up housing prices in fast-growing cities, and that the rise in homelessness is not the result of federally-funded programs under attack by Trump.
The president’s “rhetoric gives license to local leaders to step up their own rhetoric and policies,” said Maria Foscarinis, founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
In Texas, where Republicans are fighting to maintain their grip on the statehouse, Gov. Greg Abbott is publicly feuding with city officials in Austin for passing local ordinances to decriminalize homelessness.
Abbott is pushing the Legislature to establish a statewide ban on local measures to decriminalize homelessness when lawmakers reconvene in January. Travis County GOP chairman Matt Mackowiak has also jumped into the spat, saying he’s organizing a ballot resolution that would force the city to overturn its measures.
“Not prosecuting crimes leads to anarchy,” Mackowiak said. “Encouraging homelessness and making it last as long as possible is not the answer.”
Members of Austin’s Democratic-controlled city council say they passed the measures so they could better connect people without homes with services rather than spooking them with arrest, harming their chances of finding a place to live, and driving them into the shadows.
“We see our state leadership and governor demonizing people experiencing homelessness and creating a link between homelessness and criminality,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in an interview. “It certainly doesn’t make it easier to deal with the challenge.”
Roman, with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and others who have been working on the issue for decades say the Trump administration is throwing out a playbook that’s working.
Rather than emphasize housing, the federal approach instead focuses on the law-and-order narrative Trump often likes to lean on, calling for heightened law enforcement and loosening building requirements rather than building more housing capacity — a pivot White House officials argue is needed to challenge the orthodoxy on homelessness solutions.
“President Trump has talked more about homelessness than all other presidents combined since President Reagan,” said Robert Marbut, the head of Trump’s U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, at a recent conservative policy conference in Austin. “The greatest news is that in the last six weeks is that an honest conversation has started and the President has started it.”
Housing First advocates also reject policies that put homeless people in jail saying it’s expensive, ineffective and flies in the face of a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision the Supreme Court refused to hear in December. So far, Congress has maintained federal funding for new shelters and housing and put guardrails on the administration’s homelessness response in the fiscal 2020 appropriations bill. In January, a group of bipartisan lawmakers urged Marbut to continue housing-first policies.
But the 2020 presidential campaign has also put a spotlight on the fault lines among Democrats, who aren’t necessarily on the same page on how to address homelessness.
Las Vegas is one of the few Democratic-led cities that is taking a more punitive approach to homelessness, which drew scrutiny from more than a half-dozen White House hopefuls — including Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders — eager to differentiate themselves from Trump on the issue.
“The Democrats are known as the kinder, gentler party, but this is going to require tough love and not a lot of Democrats want to go there,” said Democratic strategist Steven Maviglio, who served as press secretary to former California Gov. Gray Davis.
The Las Vegas measure, which went into effect Feb. 1, makes it illegal to sleep on public streets if shelter beds are available, a move the candidates said “criminalizes” homelessness.
“I thought that there was a marble missing from each one of them,” Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, a Democrat, said of the presidential candidates.
“None of them called to find out what we were doing and why,” Goodman said in an interview. “For people who are running for the highest office in the land, I can’t even find words to speak to that.”
The new ordinance was intended to force homeless people to make use of services and prevent the city from developing a seedy area like Los Angeles’ Skid Row, she said.
“It’s about safety first and health second,” Goodman said. “We are a city of compassion.”
So far no one has been arrested or fined under the new ordinance, Goodman spokesperson David Riggleman said.
And despite Trump’s searing takes about homelessness and liberal policies, some Republicans are struggling with the issue too.
A package of bills that would direct $3.7 million towards reducing homelessness in Wisconsin passed the Republican-controlled state Assembly last year. But most of the measures, backed by Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, have stalled amid opposition from a handful of conservative senators who have balked at the price tag.
“I think what some people that are hesitant to pass this package of bills may point to is the extraordinary amounts of money that are spent in some of these bigger cities where there are more homelessness issues and kind of the failure of that to have a dramatic impact on the homeless population,” said Steineke, who sponsored the bills.
He said that the bills would save the state money by helping homeless people get back on their feet.
“It’s a humanity issue,” Steineke said.
Victoria Colliver contributed to this report