LOS ANGELES — A consultant known for urging cities to stop “enabling” homeless people, in part by blocking charities from handing out food, has been tapped to lead the agency that coordinates the federal government’s response to homelessness.
Robert Marbut, who has worked with several cities, including Fresno and several other California cities and counties, would succeed Matthew Doherty as executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Doherty, an Obama administration appointee, was ousted by the Trump administration last month.
The shift in leadership comes as President Donald Trump has repeatedly vowed to crack down on street encampments in Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere in California.
In September, a coterie of officials from his administration came to Los Angeles to study homelessness. The trip was led by Ben Hobbs, White House special assistant for domestic policy, and included officials from the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We have people living in our … best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings … where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige,” Trump said during the visit. “And all of a sudden they have tents.”
Still, it’s unclear what Marbut’s appointment will mean for California, home to the nation’s largest homeless population. Legally, the Trump administration has limited options to open shelters or use police to clear encampments — although there is some appetite among L.A. County residents to have law enforcement be more involved.
Marbut did not immediately return a call for comment.
His appointment is contingent on final approval at the council’s Dec. 10 meeting, the agency’s communications director, Jennifer L. Rich, told The Times on Tuesday night.
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness is a relatively small agency, but it is responsible for coordinating programs and investment dollars across 19 federal departments, including Housing and Urban Development, Education, and Labor and Commerce. The agency also works with states and the private sector.
Marbut, a Texas-based consultant sought after by communities looking for ways to address homelessness, has long encouraged elected officials to stop coddling people on the streets.
In 2012, he pushed the Florida city of Clearwater to stop “renegade food” donations from churches and other charitable organizations. At the time, he characterized Clearwater as the second-most enabling city in America.
“No one has got out of homelessness just because they got fed,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “That has never happened.”
Marbut went undercover that year to observe the homeless population. His plan called for the city to stop people from sleeping in public and from panhandling, and expand the authority of police to crack down on minor offenses, among other steps — all of which squared with the “seven guiding principles” listed on his now-deleted website.
“When I go into a city, I say if you really want a reduction, we’re able to get about an 80% street reduction,” Marbut told NPR in 2014. “But to do that, you have to totally retool everything you’re doing. You can’t be feeding on the street. But likewise, you have to provide and enhance and sometimes create programs that address the root causes, because hunger is not the root cause of homelessness.”
Marbut also has been skeptical of “housing first,” the widely accepted model that prioritizes getting people off the streets before focusing on other issues of mental health or substance abuse. The federal agency he is poised to lead has long pushed the strategy as the best way to reduce homelessness.
Broadly, Marbut’s philosophy is in line with many of the views espoused by the Trump administration.
In September, the White House Council of Economic Advisors issued a report on homelessness that mostly focused on how streamlining housing regulations could help solve the crisis. It also insisted that hospitable conditions for sleeping on the streets and better access to shelters actually lead to an increase in the homeless population by making people comfortable.
Such thinking has been roundly criticized by homeless advocates as too harsh, particularly in places such as Los Angeles where there aren’t enough shelter beds or affordable housing to bring people indoors.
“Shelters don’t end homelessness, they manage it,” Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, tweeted Tuesday night. “And Marbut uses shelters to hide homelessness, infantilizing and patronizing people experiencing homelessness in the process.”
Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said that the federal agency has been an essential to addressing homelessness.
“This work has been neither political or nor partisan,” she said in a statement, and the alliance “hopes to continue to work” with the agency under Marbut’s leadership.
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