The Trump administration’s new pick to lead the federal response to homelessness is known for advocating against free food and other “enabling“ services. He prefers massive shelters that house the poor temporarily — sometimes under threat of arrest.
Robert Marbut, a consultant for cities looking to end homelessness, has been tapped to lead the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness — a group the administration has repeatedly tried to eliminate. He wouldn’t be named to the position until a council vote on Dec. 10, the group's first scheduled meeting since the previous, Obama-era director, Matthew Doherty, was ousted without a clear reason last month.
Marbut’s potential appointment could mean more disappointment for homeless advocates who’ve pleaded with the administration to find housing solutions rather than the big shelters or criminalization efforts the administration appears to support. Marbut’s views more closely mirror those espoused by Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers in a September report that warned living on the streets and inside some nicer, more private shelters had become too “tolerable” for homeless people. However, Marbut in the past has said he also doesn’t support outright criminalization or jailing people instead of providing some sort of service.
Marbut’s consulting website outlining his views to combat homelessness has since been deleted, but Diane Yentel, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, shared a screenshot of those views and described his positions as “paternalistic, patronizing, filled with poverty blaming/shaming” in a tweet Monday. He has previously described his approach to homelessness as a “velvet hammer.”
“He embodies and epitomizes what appears to be this administration’s approach to homelessness: to not address the fundamental underlying cause of homelessness, which is a lack of decent, accessible, affordable housing,” Yentel told VICE News.
When VICE News interviewed Marbut in 2015, he said that “feeding people has never got a single person out of homelessness,” and advocated instead for big shelters that didn’t produce clear results. One California shelter he advocated for was a former jail densely packed with bunk beds. Another shelter he boosted in Florida, called Pinellas Safe Harbor, was described in a 2014 report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture as a “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” choice for homeless people there. The shelter was bare-bones and required homeless people to sleep on the floor before “earning” a bed.
“Residents start by sleeping on mats on the floor inside or outside in the courtyard with no air conditioning or protection from the elements,” the report, led by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said of the shelter. “They must comply with rules to "earn" their way to a place inside or a bed.”
Eric Tars, the legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said the shelters proposed by Marbut — often 24/7 facilities with few barriers to entry — would be positive if people were provided other options, too, or if people weren’t forced into them by threat of arrest. Plus, there’s not much evidence that his approach actually works — it’s just often preferred by cities that want to get people off the streets and out of sight as fast as possible, he said.
“We don’t know what to expect from him in this role, and we certainly hope that he will follow the evidence-based approach outlined in the federal strategic plan to end homelessness,” said Tars. That plan calls for “housing-first” solutions, or getting people into permanent, affordable housing with few preconditions. “Based on his past behavior, we have serious concerns that that won’t be the case.”
The Trump administration has expressed interest in moving homeless people off the streets through harsher means, particularly in left-leaning cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. The White House is expected to release some sort of homelessness plan in the coming weeks.
“It’s very concerning. This is a potentially big step backwards,” Yentel said. “It risks undermining the decade-plus learning, research, practice, and bipartisan effort to end homelessness.”
Cover: In this Aug. 12, 2011 photo, Robert Marbut poses for a photo inside of the Pinellas Safe Harbor in Clearwater, Fla., a 500-bed shelter for homeless people in the county. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)