MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
President Trump spent the holidays, among other things, criticizing his political opponents for failing to address homelessness. Here he is at a rally in Michigan talking about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who represents most of San Francisco.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: She ought to go home and take care of her district, where the homeless is all over the place, and the tents and the filth and the garbage is eroding right into the Pacific Ocean and into their beaches.
KELLY: In recent months, the president has threatened to intervene, but it is not clear what, if anything, he will do. We're joined now by NPR's Pam Fessler, who covers homelessness.
Hi there, Pam.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Why is the president particularly focused on this and why right now?
FESSLER: Well, he's - besides that speech in Michigan, he's posted several tweets over the holidays attacking Democrats for not addressing the problem. In addition to Pelosi, he also cited California Governor Gavin Newsom and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for not doing enough. Now, in Pelosi's case, it's clearly tied to the impeachment. On Sunday, last Sunday, he tweeted that Pelosi should, quote, "spend more time in her decaying city and less time on the impeachment hoax," exclamation mark.
But the president's also trying, as you could hear in that clip from that rally, to make the case that Democrats aren't doing a very good job dealing with a very serious a national problem, and that's something that clearly resonates with his base.
KELLY: Well, fact-check that for us, Pam. Does the president have a point?
FESSLER: Well, homelessness is on the rise. The government just reported that 560,000 people this past year were homeless, and that's almost 3% more than the year before. And the largest growth by far is definitely in California, where about one quarter of the nation's homeless population now lives. But there were also increases in states that - where Republicans are in charge, and Trump never mentions that. For example, Georgia saw its homeless population go up 10% last year compared to New York, which barely saw any increase at all.
Most experts agree this is a crisis, but you can't necessarily finger or blame one particular cause, although a lack of affordable housing is seen as a major factor, and that's why we're seeing so much in these expensive cities, like LA.
KELLY: Now, President Trump saying that he will step in if Democrats don't get the problem under control themselves. What is his administration actually doing?
FESSLER: Well, so far, not a lot. I mean, a lot of it's more talk. The Environmental Protection Agency has warned California - it did so in September - that it was violating the Clean Water Act by allowing the refuse from homeless encampments to drain into the ocean. It also cited San Francisco for this kind of pollution. But contrary to what Trump told that rally in Michigan, the EPA has not imposed any huge fines yet on the state.
The White House also, as you might recall, sent a team of officials to LA in September to look into the problem and also into possibly converting federal facilities that are empty now into homeless shelters. But still, we have yet to see anything from that. They haven't announced any plans. The administration's also been looking at the possibility of eliminating regulations that it says are barriers to providing affordable housing, but they haven't reported anything out on that yet, either. One thing the administration has done is they replaced the head of the federal agency that oversees homelessness policy with somebody who's a lot more controversial.
KELLY: They replaced the person outed with someone more controversial - OK, go on. Yeah.
FESSLER: Yeah, but with - more controversial. And that person, for example, has suggested that distributing meals outside only encourages people to stay homeless.
KELLY: All right, so what else are you watching for in 2020?
FESSLER: Well, we want to see if the administration comes up with any particular plan to help cities in this - especially in this emergency time, such as providing maybe shelters, and then also what President Trump might propose in his budget requests this year. In the past, he's called for steep cuts in homeless assist - I mean, housing assistance for low-income families, and advocates say that only exacerbates the problem.
KELLY: That is NPR's Pam Fessler.
Thank you for your reporting.
FESSLER: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIBIO'S "A TOUT A L'HEURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.