Trump sees ‘liberal policies’ fueling California homeless crisis. What can he do about it?

President Donald Trump is likely to run into stiff resistance if he pitches federal intervention to solve California’s rising homelessness crisis, absent buy-in from the state.

Experts say there are steps the federal government can take to help California and other states get people off the streets, but they would require local cooperation. Any effort to “crack down” on homeless encampments in California, as the Washington Post reported the White House was considering, would face immediate legal challenges and local opposition.

“Unless the administration is going to try to invoke some emergency powers as it has done to build its wall, there is no authority for the federal government to relocate people that I can think of,” affordable housing attorney Adam Norlander told McClatchy, via email.

White House officials denied that they have firm plans in the works, emphasizing that the administration is still researching options. But they made clear that the president blames California’s Democratic leaders for the surging number of homeless people across the state, in yet another broadside in Trump’s long-running feud with the state.

“Like many Americans, the president has taken notice of the homelessness crisis, particularly in cities and states where the liberal policies of overregulation, excessive taxation, and poor public service delivery are combining to dramatically increase poverty and public health risks,” said Judd Deere, a White House spokesman.

Trump in June appointed a council to investigate barriers to affordable housing and to recommend solutions. Since then, Deer said, “President Trump has directed his team to go further and develop a range of policy options for consideration to deal with this tragedy.”

White House officials have recently held high-level meetings on the issue. One of the things they have zeroed in on is the high price of housing in California, according to one senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

An administration team was on the ground in California late last week, continuing its research, an official confirmed. The Washington Post first reported that Trump aides had visited a former Federal Aviation Administration facility in the Los Angeles area earlier in the week as part of a search for sites to relocate homeless people.

Under a 1987 law, the federal government can transfer or lease vacant federal properties to cities, states or local nonprofit organizations to help provide housing for the homeless.

There are some good things that can be done with vacant federal properties,” said Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “That is a program that is very underutilized,” Bauman said.

She pointed out, however, that any move to repurpose federal buildings as homeless shelters or low-income housing would require “some level of participation and cooperation” by a city, county or nonprofit organization. Under the federal program, the local partner would be responsible for running the shelter.

The federal government also funds a number of programs to address homelessness, including HUD’s Continuum of Care program to rehouse homeless families and individuals, noted Norlander, who worked at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) before joining the law firm Klein Hornig in Washington, D.C. “But these programs are run at the local level by state and local governments and nonprofits.”

Additional resources for such programs “would go a long way to addressing homelessness,” he said.

But “the idea of forcing homeless people into federal facilities through some kind federally led, law enforcement/military style effort is also inhumane and grotesque, and does not appear to have been thought out so hopefully that is not actually the strategy.”

Both Bauman and Norlander said that such an effort would likely violate homeless people’s constitutional rights, including the right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures.

A federal court also ruled last year that cities cannot punish homeless people who sleep in public spaces if they can’t provide sufficient, accessible shelter space for their homeless population. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision in April. The city of Boise, where the case originated, has appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which has yet to decide if it will consider the case.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, the recently appointed chair of the state’s homelessness commission, told the Sacramento Bee earlier this week that he was “wary” of the administration’s offer to help address the state’s homelessness crisis.

“And yet, if the federal government wants to offer resources to help bring people indoors and to offer federal facilities to shelter and house people, we should readily listen,” he said. “We cannot afford to politicize an issue which needs real thought and real commitment.”

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Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.
Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.