Tents set up by homeless people sit in front of a building on Skid Row, Feb. 4, 2015, in Los Angeles, Calif.
Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP

Trump ‘bewilders’ with reported effort to combat Calif. homelessness

Homelessness has never been an issue at the heart of Donald Trump’s political message, though in a Fox News interview in July, the president addressed the subject, telling Tucker Carlson that he and his team are “looking at it very seriously.” The president pointed to “some of the very important things that we’re doing now,” though he didn’t identify what “things” he was referring to.

He added, in specific reference to cities in California, “We may intercede. We may do something to get that whole thing cleaned up. It’s inappropriate. Now, we have to take the people and do something. We have to do something.”

No one knew what he was talking about, but Trump nevertheless claimed a degree of expertise on the issue, saying in the same interview, “You know, I had a situation when I first became president, we had certain areas of Washington, DC, where that was starting to happen, and I ended it very quickly. I said, ‘You can’t do that.’” None of this made sense, either.

Nevertheless, two months later, the Washington Post is reporting that the president has ordered officials to launch “a sweeping effort” to address homelessness in California.

The planning has intensified in recent weeks. Administration officials have discussed using the federal government to get homeless people off the streets of Los Angeles and other cities and into new government-backed facilities, according to two officials briefed on the planning.

But it is unclear how they could accomplish this and what legal authority they would use. It is also unclear whether the state’s Democratic politicians would cooperate with Trump, who has sought to embarrass them over the homelessness crisis with repeated attacks on their competency.

Ordinarily, I like to unwrap White House ideas and evaluate their merits, but in this case, there’s not much to chew on. It’s as if Trump simply decided that homelessness in California is a problem worthy of his attention, so he ordered his team to do … something.

Politico reported that state and local officials in the Golden States were left trying to “decipher” the Washington Post’s article, looking for clues in the hopes of getting a better sense of the administration’s plan.

[Gavin Newsom, California’s Democratic governor] has sparred with President Donald Trump before over homelessness, and a spokesperson assailed the president’s record in a statement that California “stands ready to talk” if Trump is willing to discuss “real investment” in housing. Newsom’s first budget, passed earlier this year, committed billions of dollars to housing and homelessness.

“[Trump] could start by ending his plans to cut food stamps, gut health care for low-income people, and scare immigrant families from accessing government services,” spokesperson Nathan Click said.

In a head-snapping turn of events that illustrated the challenges California faces in working with a hostile and mercurial president, news of possible federal action dropped – bewildering officials – as Los Angeles officials were giving a tour to a Trump administration contingent focused on homelessness.

I suppose it’s possible that something worthwhile will come of this. If the president is sincerely interested in addressing a real problem, there are constructive and meaningful steps the federal government could take. It’s also possible the White House has some kind of legally dubious power-grab in mind, which would be far more problematic.

Given Team Trump’s track record, I have a hunch that there is no actual plan, and very little will happen, but time will tell.

As for how exactly the president settled on this as a priority, this Media Matters report struck me as notable.

Fox News has spent months relentlessly demonizing homelessness in cities governed by Democrats, with a particular focus on California. Now, it has been reported that President Donald Trump plans to crack down on homeless camps in California, possibly forcing homeless people into government facilities, and that he has cited “the state’s growing crisis” as justification.

Earlier this year, Fox News began increasing its coverage of homelessness in America’s cities, using a conveniently vulnerable population as a bludgeon against Democratic politicians and proposals. In particular, the network has focused on California – a Media Matters search shows that the network has aired at least 53 segments that discussed homelessness in California since May.

At least we have a sense of how the issue reached the president’s radar.