Trump’s new tough-love homelessness czar might surprise skeptics

San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 24, 2020

By Kevin Fagan


President Trump’s newly appointed national homelessness czar, Robert Marbut, slipped into his boss’ enemy territory, otherwise known as the Bay Area, last week for a quiet visit. And in an exclusive interview with The Chronicle, he laid out a surprising agenda — because in some ways, it sounded like what local program leaders are promoting.


Marbut said he likes supportive housing. He’s big on drug and mental health rehabilitation, streamlined rules for building shelters and housing, and tracking systems that help tailor services better to street people. All of these are core to homelessness strategies in San Francisco and around California. The fact that Marbut was propounding them was all the more striking for the tone he set. It didn’t sound like Trump’s.


The president has famously ripped into local and state leaders over California’s skyrocketing street population, spouting inflammatory tweets about how San Francisco has become “worse than a slum” with needles “pouring into the ocean.” He’s threatened to step in with heavy-handed federal action if they can’t clean up the homelessness crisis.


None of that rhetoric came from Marbut on Wednesday in Oakland at the Marriott hotel restaurant against the backdrop of a national homelessness conference. And as he sat eating lunch, he went unnoticed and unheralded — he wasn’t booked to speak, and few even knew he was in the building.


“Look, I like California, and I think we have the same goal — we want to significantly reduce homelessness,” he said, forking in a bite of rice with vegetables and looking around bemusedly at the homelessness experts and managers who appeared to be oblivious to his presence.


If the decidedly liberal crowd at the nonprofit National Alliance to End Homelessness conference — the most important West Coast gathering of the year in the homeless-aid world — had known Marbut was there, the boos would have shaken the ceiling.


“We’d eat him alive if he was here,” one program director cracked.


That hostility is rooted in history. Marbut, a longtime homelessness consultant based in Texas, has been accused in media coverage of not wanting to feed the homeless or readily house them. He’s been castigated for designing a shelter in San Antonio that makes some people sleep outside in a courtyard before they can move inside.


“This is not a Republican thing, or a Democrat thing — it’s about giving people housing with services, addressing the problems that made you homeless so you don’t become homeless again,” Marbut, 59, told The Chronicle. “Services are the secret sauce, not just the roof. They have to be tied together.


“There’s a lot of common ground we can all find, and it’s unfortunate that some things I’ve said before have been taken out of context or twisted around.”


Marbut has repeatedly said he doesn’t like the term “housing first,” which means placing chronically homeless people under roofs before they are enrolled in mental health or substance abuse programs. Quoted in 2015 by HuffPost as saying, “I believe in housing fourth,” with the implication that housing gets yanked if someone isn’t participating, he said such statements are misinterpreted.


“The services must absolutely be tied to the housing, yes, and they are paramount,” he said. “But if someone is failing with the services, not engaging, you don’t just throw them out. You start at the beginning with them. Recovery doesn’t work in a straight line — it’s oscillating.”


The main sticking point for Marbut with many program providers is the tough-love approach he advocates. He has consulted for homelessness programs nationwide for more than a decade, and among his main messages are preventing panhandling and advising police to sweep encampments into shelters. He also suggests limiting soup kitchens to facilities with services and rewarding people who participate in services by giving them better shelter placements.


His enthusiasm for transitional housing — long-term shelter with services until someone gets a permanent home — gets particularly intensive resistance. That sort of housing has fallen out of favor because it’s usually at least 50% more expensive than placing someone in a permanent home right away.


But Marbut, in 2006, helped create one of the better-known models of transitional housing in America, the Haven for Hope shelter in San Antonio. As head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Marbut doesn’t allocate funding, but he does help shape policy and coordinate the efforts of 19 federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — and he holds the haven up as positive model.


“Since HUD started emphasizing ‘housing first’ over services and not requiring participation in programs, national homelessness has increased,” he said. Street counts went up 3% last year in the U.S., and 16% in California. “It’s not working. We’ve got to get back to addressing the root causes of homelessness, and engaging people in services — not enabling them.”


Exactly how or whether to ramp up the programs he likes at a time when Trump is proposing major cuts in housing and aid programs remains uncertain.


His tough-love approaches brought immediate condemnation when he got his job in December. National Low Income Housing Coalition CEO Diane Yentel tweeted that Marbut’s techniques were “paternalistic, patronizing, filled with poverty blaming/shaming.”


Others critics, such as National Alliance to End Homelessness CEO Nan Roman, are more measured.


“I don’t agree that we should be building more transitional housing,” Roman told The Chronicle at the Oakland conference. “Housing with services? Of course we need that. But there also needs to be a place for those who aren’t ready for services yet, because you can’t just leave them on the street.”


A 2020 report by her nonprofit shows that while every state has cut back on transitional housing beds since 2013, 32 states and territories reduced the number of unsheltered people on their streets. She attributed that to the rise in “housing first” programs.


“He hasn’t done anything yet in his new job, so I am reserving judgment for now,” Roman said of Marbut. “It would be great if we could work with him.”


Her hope is echoed by the director of homelessness programs in one of Trump’s favorite targets, San Francisco.


“What I heard from him is a deep interest in recovery, service delivery and personal responsibility, and those are not bad things to be interested in,” said Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing chief Jeff Kositsky, who chatted with Marbut at the end of that rice lunch Wednesday.


“He said he wants to come out and look at some of our programs in San Francisco, and despite whatever philosophical or political differences we might have, it’s important that we find common ground. I’d welcome him.”


Marbut had already spent several hours late Tuesday night walking around the Tenderloin talking to homeless people and police officers.


“It was so very sad,” he said of what he saw. “People injecting drugs, so many outside. How did our country get to this place? These people need help.”


Marbut has done homelessness consulting gigs in several California communities, with varied results. His techniques fell flat in 2014 when Fresno officials hired him to assess the city’s homeless resources, and he suggested building a shelter similar to the Haven for Hope. Locals balked at the model.


But in Placer County, Marbut’s consultations were a hit. Its opening of a 100-bed service-enriched shelter and expansion of drug, alcohol and mental health programs, following his suggestions, were largely responsible for the homeless count dipping from 663 in 2017 to 617 in 2019, said Brigit Barnes, a leader of the community homeless crisis effort.


“We could not have done it without Robert,” Barnes said.


At least one of Marbut’s predecessors, Barbara Poppe, one of President Barack Obama’s homelessness czars, did not share that sunny view of him. She was hired by Fresno as a consultant after Marbut’s proposal was rejected.


“Being homeless is tough enough — enacting more harsh requirements won’t magically work to address homelessness, which is caused by an extreme shortage of affordable rental housing,” Poppe told The Chronicle last week. “‘Housing first’ provides a real solution and enables homeless people to exit the streets.”


But Philip Mangano, another predecessor in the czar post — under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush — disagreed. He has long propounded the benefits of supportive housing and said Marbut is largely on the same page about that.


“Marbut does say controversial things that get taken out of context, but if you have direct conversations with him and see what he’s done, you will see that he does want to feed homeless people, and he does understand ‘housing first’ to be one of the interventions that can resolve homelessness,” said Mangano, now a member of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Council of Regional Homeless Advisors. “I don’t agree with him on everything.


“But I will say this: He’s restored some energy to that position.”

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