Trump’s Plan to Solve Homelessness Is Horrifying

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By Jake Bittle for The Nation [The original SEPTEMBER 18, 2019 article may be found here.]

During a fundraising trip to California this week, President Donald Trump hinted at his administration’s imminent crackdown on the state’s homelessness crisis. Speaking as he disembarked from Air Force One in the Bay Area yesterday, he deplored the fact that “we have people living in our best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings, where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes.” The problem had gotten so bad, he said, that “our policemen on the beat are getting sick.”

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Ben Carson flew to California the same day to detail the administration’s plans for dealing with the crisis. Carson was vague on the details of the administration’s approach, but previous reporting in The Washington Post had suggested that the White House was proposing to demolish tent cities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, increase the “role of police” in monitoring homelessness, and potentially incarcerate the homeless in government-run facilities.

…the White House was proposing to demolish tent cities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, increase the “role of police” in monitoring homelessness, and potentially incarcerate the homeless in government-run facilities.

“The local government should back the police up,” Carson said. “People can make it very clear without having a big policy change whether they support law enforcement.”

Carson’s boss has frequently bashed California for political points, taking aim at everything from the state’s “sanctuary city” policies to its forest management. And the real problem of homelessness in California is a cudgel Trump will use to attack the Democrats ahead of the 2020 election. Yet as bad as Trump’s ideas are, they aren’t unique—in fact, they sound a lot like Democrats’ existing proposals in liberal cities.

Until now, the Trump administration has mostly ignored the issue of homelessness, leaving federal supportive housing grants almost untouched. After around a decade of improvement, overall US homelessness rates have started to rise again, albeit by just half a percentage point. Still, the White House’s disregard has probably been good for the country’s unhoused.

Now that Trump is again disparaging California, the administration is bringing its characteristic mix of cluelessness and cruelty to bear on the crisis. The administration’s view of the issue, described in a Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) report released this week, is that a major driver of homelessness is “the tolerability of sleeping on the street.” It also speculates that “the extent of policing of street activities may play a role” in reducing unsheltered homelessness. The phrase “affordable housing” appears just twice in its 41 pages.

Ahead of Trump and Carson’s California visit, HUD sent a team of officials to Los Angeles and other California cities on what administration officials called a “fact-finding mission” to meet with local homelessness officials and visit encampments. The details of the “mission” are unclear, but The Washington Post reported that officials expressed interest in destroying encampments such as Los Angeles’s Skid Row, increasing police presence, and forcing homeless populations into an unused Federal Aviation Administration facility in nearby Hawthorne. (One government official told the Post that the latter was “the stupidest idea I have ever heard.”)

HUD sent a team of officials to Los Angeles and other California cities on what administration officials called a “fact-finding mission” to meet with local homelessness officials and visit encampments. The details of the “mission” are unclear, but The Washington Post reported that officials expressed interest in destroying encampments such as Los Angeles’s Skid Row, increasing police presence, and forcing homeless populations into an unused Federal Aviation Administration facility in nearby Hawthorne.

The administration’s proposals drew immediate backlash from California Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose spokesperson said, “The Trump administration’s heartless policies have only exacerbated the matter, harming the most vulnerable in our society.”

Trump’s proposed policies are horrifying, but their underlying logic—treating homelessness as a crime—is not unique. Although liberal city leaders around the country may put more emphasis than Trump on affordable housing and supportive services for vulnerable populations, these leaders also treat unsheltered homelessness as a problem to be arrested, ticketed, and pushed out of sight.

Trump’s proposed policies are horrifying, but their underlying logic—treating homelessness as a crime—is not unique. Although liberal city leaders around the country may put more emphasis than Trump on affordable housing and supportive services for vulnerable populations, these leaders also treat unsheltered homelessness as a problem to be arrested, ticketed, and pushed out of sight.

In Los Angeles, for instance, where homelessness has risen 75 percent in the last six years, Mayor Eric Garcetti responded last fall with a “crackdown” of his own, beginning a series of LAPD raids of homeless encampments that have continued for almost a year. And in the Bay Area, where Trump spoke Tuesday morning about the evils of progressive policy, city officials have staged multiple raids this summer on homeless camps in San Francisco and Oakland, disassembling wooden homes and arresting anyone who occupied them and had an outstanding warrant. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, when asked about Trump’s comments, sounded sympathetic: “To a great extent,” she said, “I agree.”

These anti-homeless policies aren’t an issue just in California, either. In New York City, an uncommon “right-to-shelter” law technically guarantees most homeless people a bed in a city shelter, but thousands of people still sleep on the streets and subways. When they do, they frequently encounter a harsh and punitive police presence: The Metropolitan Transportation Authority intends to hire 500 new officers this year to enforce “quality of life” on the subways, and it also deployed more police last month to arrest homeless people on subways and buses. These actions followed a separate crackdown last year in which subway employees were directed to forcibly remove homeless people from stations. And in Denver, where city officials have considered giving homeless people the right to camp anywhere, local police spent May and June tearing down encampments around the city.

Residents of these liberal cities, meanwhile, are often no kinder to the homeless than their political representatives. In April, hundreds of residents in Pelosi’s own district stormed a city meeting to protest a proposed homeless shelter in downtown San Francisco. A few months later, residents elsewhere in San Francisco sued to block the construction of another shelter because it would have “a significant effect on the environment…by attracting additional homeless persons, open drug and alcohol use, crime”; residents in Los Angeles have sued to block affordable housing developments on the same grounds. In New York, the city’s initiative to build 100 new shelters in 10 years has been met with resistance both in ritzy parts of Manhattan and in lower-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens.

“It’s understandable that people who aren’t homeless want something done about the issue,” said Nan Roman, executive director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “but people who are homeless also want something done about it. The police might have a role, but they don’t really have the tools to respond to the issue—all they can do is arrest people, ticket people, destroy camps, and [the homeless are] back on the street the next day and nothing has changed except that they now have an arrest record.”

“It’s understandable that people who aren’t homeless want something done about the issue,” said Nan Roman, executive director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “but people who are homeless also want something done about it. The police might have a role, but they don’t really have the tools to respond to the issue—all they can do is arrest people, ticket people, destroy camps, and [the homeless are] back on the street the next day and nothing has changed except that they now have an arrest record.”

Democratic politicians are right to condemn Trump’s militaristic plan for dealing with homelessness. It will endanger vulnerable people and do nothing to fix the underlying causes of the crisis. But politicians like Pelosi and Garcetti should also consider what’s going on in their own backyards, where residents and political leaders also treat homeless people as a population that is best made invisible.

Despite the callousness of Trump’s CEA report, experts and advocates are clear that affordable housing and supportive services are the only long-term answers to the problem of homelessness. Until local and federal politicians turn to these solutions instead of policing and incarceration, neither party will fix the crisis.

Jake Bittle is a freelance writer. He was formerly an editorial intern at The Nation and the editor in chief of the South Side Weekly, a nonprofit newspaper that covers the South Side of Chicago.

For Edward Wimmer, Wherever You Are.

Immanuel Lutheran Church cemetery, Blountville, Tennessee. –photo © 2019 Stephen Newton

Immanuel Lutheran Church cemetery, Blountville, Tennessee. –photo © 2019 Stephen Newton

[Note: Some details about Edward Wimmer’s life have been added to this post, thanks to his brother, Frank Wimmer]

Yesterday I shot the final scene of “One Night in January.” The location was the cemetery of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Blountville, Tennessee. The occasion was a community funeral for eight individuals—all of whom were experiencing homelessness at the end of their lives.

As I filmed the service, I listened to the names of the deceased. When Edward Wimmer’s name was read, I thought it sounded familiar to me, but I was shooting on location and busy. It wasn’t until today that I remembered that I had known Ed. I met and talked with him only twice before he died, but I will never forget our encounters. 

The first time I met Ed was at the Colonial Heights Ingles in the summer of 2016, shortly after I started filming “One Night.” I’d been shooting all day in Johnson City. It was a hot July day, and my car’s AC quit working. I was feeling every one of my 72 years. 

By the time I got to Ingles, I was hot, tired to the bone, and questioning why I was producing another documentary film. I knew I had months of work and more traveling ahead of me. I was thinking of quitting.

As I waited in the checkout line, a dapper elderly man behind me said, ”You look like you just came from Sundance.” 

His comment took me by surprise. “I wish it were so,” I told him. “But you’re close. I am a filmmaker.” I handed him my business card.

He looked at it and said, “What kind of film are you working on now, Stephen?” 

“I’m doing a documentary about homelessness.”

“God blesses your work, Stephen,” he said, as I paid my bill and walked away. 

“Thank you,” I said, over my shoulder. Then as I approached the doors, I heard him call out, “God blesses your work, Stephen.”

That day, Edward Wimmer was my guardian angel and gave me the encouragement I needed to keep working on the film.

The next time I ran into Ed was at the Shades of Grace in Kingsport a year later. I was preparing to do some interviews at the church when I noticed Ed sitting in a front row chair, a small rolling suitcase parked next to him. It was winter and he was bundled up. I realized with a shock that he was homeless. We recognized each other and he approached me as I was mounting the camera on the tripod. 

“What are you doing here?” I asked him. 

“I’m here to get warm,” he said. “If you need help, I used to work at a station in Baltimore.”

I told him that I was covered that day, but from time to time it would be great to have some help. I asked for his name and phone number. Later on, I called the number to take him up on his offer, but there was no answer.

Image036%2BEd%2BWimmer.jpg

EDWARD WIMMER
(1955 - 2019)

According to his brother, Frank, Ed grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and worked as an electronic technician at a Westinghouse Electric owned station in Baltimore County. He moved to Kingsport with his brother Ronald in 2006 to be close to their brother Roger. Ronald died in 2018.

Ed died at the age of 64, another statistic showing that women, children and the elderly are now the fastest growing homeless populations. After that day at the church, we never met again.

Until yesterday.

By some divine guidance or incredible coincidence, we met again for the last time in this life. I had no idea I was covering Ed’s funeral, that he was one of the eight. When I did realize it, I took it as a very good sign that he was there. In a strange way, he had followed the film from its beginning to its end.

I’m dedicating “One Night in January” to the memory of Edward Wimmer, and to the millions of Americans who are experiencing extreme poverty and homelessness in the richest country in the world.

“God blesses your work, Stephen.” 

Thank you, Ed, wherever you are.

UN Sent Philip Alston On A Tour Of The US

Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur explores Skid Row in Los Angeles, California— Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur explores Skid Row in Los Angeles, California—Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

In December 2018, Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, spent two weeks visiting the United States, at the invitation of the federal government, to look at whether the persistence of extreme poverty in America undermines the enjoyment of human rights by its citizens.  In his travels through California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington DC, he spoke with dozens of experts and civil society groups, met with senior state and federal government officials and talked with many people who are homeless or living in deep poverty. 

The new tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world, and will greatly increase the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the richest 1% and the poorest 50% of Americans

His visit coincides with a dramatic change of direction in US policies relating to inequality and extreme poverty. The new tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world, and will greatly increase the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the richest 1% and the poorest 50% of Americans.  The dramatic cuts in welfare, foreshadowed President Trump and former Speaker Ryan, and already beginning to be implemented by the administration, will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes. 

The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.

To read Philip Alston’s UN report, please visit The Guardian

One Stormy Winter Night

Mrs. Josephine Morrison  —Photo: © 2019 David Wood

Mrs. Josephine Morrison —Photo: © 2019 David Wood

We first heard her name mentioned at The Shades of Grace, a storefront church in Kingsport, Tennessee, that ministers to the city’s homeless population under the guiding hand of its pastor, Will Shuey, assisted by volunteers like Rev. Michele Beck.

Mrs. Morrison, we were told, inspired a movement to build the first Kingsport day center for people experiencing homelessness. At 102, Mrs. Morrison still burns the torch of compassion and service to others.

During her interview for the film, we asked her what prompted her to initiate the day center project. In her usual modest way, she explained that she was leaving church one stormy winter night when a sudden flash of lighting prompted her to ask the question, “Where do you suppose homeless people go on a night like this?”

The answer was a group of concerned citizens who meet regularly at a Kingsport church to formulate the new day center plans. As part of their due diligence, the group has visited day centers in Charlotte, and nearby Johnson City.

We wish them luck. We’ll keep you posted here on their progress.

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