California's Homeless Advocates Puzzled By Trump's Threats

Sep 21, 2019
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President Trump used a campaign fundraising trip out west this week to step up his fight with California - a rich, huge homeless population and responsibility for that. Trump threatened to have the federal government come in to clean up what he calls a total disaster. He also warned the Environmental Protection Agency might go after San Francisco for polluting the ocean with drainage from homeless encampments. The threats puzzled and angered California officials and homeless advocates. NPR's Pam Fessler has more.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Although he was in California for two days, the president didn't visit any of the homeless encampments he's been railing against for weeks. Instead, he talked about the problem during a visit to the border wall in San Diego.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If these Democrat liberal politicians don't straighten it out, the federal government will have to come in. We're not going to lose cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and others that are great cities. We're not going to allow that to happen to our cities.

FESSLER: He also complained that homeless people occupy, quote, "our best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings," scaring away well-to-do foreigners who want to live in places like San Francisco for the prestige. Later, Trump said the EPA would soon notify the city that it's violating environmental laws by allowing stormwater with discarded needles and garbage from homeless encampments to pollute the ocean.

DAVID LEWIS: We have no idea what the president was talking about, and I don't think he does either.

FESSLER: David Lewis is executive director of Save The Bay, an environmental group. He says San Francisco has better stormwater treatment than any other place in the state. He dismisses Trump's sudden interest in the ocean as purely political, given the administration's efforts to roll back environmental regulations. Lewis says he has a better solution.

LEWIS: The way to reduce the impacts from homeless encampments is to reduce homelessness.

FESSLER: Which is something the Trump administration says it's trying to do. The White House sent a team of officials to Los Angeles last week on a fact-finding mission to study the problem. This week, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson visited both LA and San Francisco, where he told reporters one possibility is to get rid of restrictive zoning and environmental laws that discourage the construction of affordable housing.

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BEN CARSON: The places that have the most regulation also have the highest prices and the most homelessness. Therefore, it would only seem logical to begin to attack those things that seem to be driving the issue.

FESSLER: Carson says the administration might provide incentives for local governments to eliminate excessive regulations. It also wants to encourage tougher policing of homeless encampments. But California Governor Gavin Newsom said if the president really wants to help, he should provide more vouchers, so poor families can afford rent in his increasingly expensive state, where almost half of the nation's unsheltered people now live. But so far, the administration's plans are extremely vague, which has homeless advocates very wary.

MARIA FOSCARINIS: I agree with the president that homelessness is a disgrace in California and across the country.

FESSLER: Maria Foscarinis heads the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

FOSCARINIS: But the actions that he's talking about are really deeply concerning.

FESSLER: She says there's no guarantee that getting rid of regulations would lead to construction of more housing for low-income families rather than for the wealthy foreigners who Trump notes want to live in the state. She calls the president's threat to send the EPA after San Francisco ludicrous.

FOSCARINIS: But it's also really disturbing because he's suggesting that homeless people are just hazardous waste, that they're a form of refuse to be cleaned up, when, in fact, we're talking about human beings.

FESSLER: Who are in desperate need of help. The administration says it hopes to have a plan to address the problem soon.

Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.