On a recent fundraising trip to California, President Trump raised the specter of federal intervention to move homeless people off the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco and other large cities in the state. His comments follow visits by HUD and the Department of Justice (DOJ) officials to assess the homeless situation in California, especially in Los Angeles. HUD Secretary Ben Carson was also in the state during Trump’s visit.
In a reversal of his negative language about immigration at the southern border, he complained that the growth in homelessness was scaring off foreign investors. “In many cases, they came from other countries and they moved to Los Angeles or they moved to San Francisco because of the prestige of the city, and all of a sudden they have tents. Hundreds and hundreds of tents and people living at the entrance to their office building. And they want to leave.”
Trump said that homeless people are sleeping on the “best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings…where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those buildings because of the prestige.” He went on to say, “The people of San Francisco are fed up, and the people of Los Angeles are fed up. We’re looking at it, and we’ll be doing something about it.”
Homelessness has been a growing problem on the West Coast. As the tech economy heated up, there has been an influx of people seeking good-paying jobs. But a shortage of housing has driven up rents beyond what most people can afford. Homelessness rose 16% for the City of Los Angeles, and 12% for the Los Angeles County last year.
There are currently about 36,000 homeless people in the City of Los Angeles and almost 60,000 in Los Angeles County. The downtown area of Skid Row is home to between 8,000 and 11,000 people sleeping on the streets. With the affordable housing crisis, more homeless encampments are being found throughout the city and county.
California’s Democratic leaders have long been a target of President Trump. He has often pointed to rising homelessness in California’s large cities to attack liberal officials. A week before his California trip, he told House lawmakers meeting in Baltimore that, “We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco, and numerous other cities destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening.”
According to the Washington Post, the president recently directed White House aides to figure out how to get homeless people off of the streets. Administration officials are considering a range of possible federal interventions. These include razing homeless encampments, using abandoned federal buildings as homeless shelters, and relocating homeless people to these facilities.
The week before Trump’s California trip, HUD and DOJ staff met with local officials in Los Angeles. They toured Skid Row and other homeless encampments. They also toured an abandoned Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) facility as a potential location for housing thousands of homeless people. The building is 20 miles away from Skid Row. An interesting twist is that local nonprofit organizations had twice been rejected when they applied to use it to provide shelter and services.
It is not clear what authority the federal government has to relocate homeless people. People sleeping on the streets is not against the law. This right was affirmed by a recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision. The 9th Circuit said that cities cannot criminalize sleeping in public if there is nowhere else for homeless people to go. Street sweeps are also problematic because of the Constitution’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure of property. As Steve Berg with the National Alliance to End Homelessness observed, “The federal government doesn’t have the legal authority to make people who are homeless go anywhere they don’t want to go.”
In conjunction with the trip, the White House Council of Economic Advisors released a report critical of the housing policies of liberal coastal cities. The report analyzes what it says are the four major causes of homelessness. The report says the major things promoting homelessness in different areas are over-regulation, more tolerable conditions for sleeping outside (warmer climates), more shelters available and individual characteristics like drug addiction or mental illness. Basically, it says that a city having more shelters, right to shelter laws and a warm climate means that homelessness will have an increase in homelessness.
The report calls for the deregulation of housing markets, although the report does not lay out what “deregulation” means specifically. It claims that the drop in home prices from scrapping would reduce homelessness by 13% nationwide. It also claims deregulation would drop homelessness even more in cities where housing and environmental regulations are too strict, such as San Francisco (54%), Los Angeles (40%), and New York City (23%). The report does not lay out what “deregulation” means specifically.
Secretary Carson also spoke about California’s homelessness crisis while in San Francisco. He said the president wanted to look at a range of options, including policing and mental health. He also told Fox News that the president is considering creating a task force to address the problem. Carson emphasized the public health hazards of homelessness, like trash and feces on the streets, and said it must be addressed before it becomes a major epidemic.
Trump’s new concern about moving homeless people off the streets in California follows on the heels of local efforts to restrict where homeless people can sleep in public. The Los Angeles City Council recently extended restrictions on where people can sleep in their cars. The City Council is also considering limiting where people can sleep in public. They are considering a ban on public sleeping within 500 feet of schools, parks, and other public spaces. City attorneys argue that these restrictions are not a citywide ban, even though they would leave very few places that homeless persons could legally sleep.