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White House homelessness plan nears after top official ousted

One person involved in deliberations said the administration’s plans are likely to target homelessness in Los Angeles and could include repurposing existing federal property, but the exact set of policy options to be presented to the president could not be learned. As part of the discussions, officials have also discussed moving homeless people from specific areas and condemning certain properties, though it’s unclear if those options will make it into the final plan.

The administration officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal government matters.

The push comes amid an intensifying effort by the Trump administration, spurred by the president’s directive months ago, to target homelessness in California. The White House’s Domestic Policy Council, which is leading the effort, was responsible for the decision last week to oust a senior federal homelessness official who had been appointed by the Obama administration, one person with knowledge of the decision said.

The accelerating plans follow Trump’s demands to aides over the summer to do something about the homeless crisis in cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, an issue Trump has called “disgusting” and a “disgrace to our country.”

Rumors of the crackdown have generated concern among career officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as among national housing experts, who worry Trump is trying to exploit the issue for political gain while offering solutions that could make the problem worse.

On Tuesday, career staff at HUD were told at an internal meeting that Doherty was not willing to compromise his principles and follow the Trump administration’s lead on homelessness policy, according to a person who attended the meeting. White House officials believed Doherty would not be willing to execute parts of its coming homelessness plan, one person with knowledge of the dismissal said.

A White House spokesman did not return a request for comment. A spokeswoman for HUD also did not respond to a request for comment about internal agency concerns.

The White House’s plans for California’s homelessness crisis have generated speculation and criticism for months. The Washington Post reported in September that administration officials have considered razing tent camps for the homeless, creating temporary facilities, and refurbishing government facilities as part of their homelessness push.

Federal officials from several different agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Justice Department, toured an abandoned Federal Aviation Administration facility as a potential site to relocate homeless people in Los Angeles’ skid row.

Rev. Andy Bales, chief executive of the Union Rescue Mission homeless shelter in Los Angeles, has been working with Trump officials for months and said he believes it is likely the administration takes action in the coming weeks.

Bales has called for a “massive, FEMA-like, Red Cross-like response” to the city’s homeless problem, which includes 44,000 people sleeping on the streets of Los Angeles county and 2,800 solely in the “Skid Row” area. Bales also said he believes faith-based groups may help provide shelter and services with the assistance of the federal government. That may be done through access to undeveloped federal land, Bales said.

“I think it’s going to happen soon. That’s the good news,” said Bales, who lost his right leg in 2016 after he said he came into contact with flesh-eating bacteria while walking streets ridden with urine and feces. “I’m not saying I know that’s what’s going to happen, because things are unpredictable, but that’s what I perceive is coming.”

Congressional Democrats and outside experts have said the administration should increase federal housing subsidies and continue the Obama administration’s “Housing First” approach. It is unclear which of the ideas that have alarmed housing experts remains under consideration.

“We’re worried about all the things the White House is hinting it may do,” said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “It’s really worrying the administration appears to be using homelessness deliberately as a political wedge issue and preying on people’s fears.”

California’s homelessness crisis has gotten dramatically worse recently, housing experts say. The number of families either sleeping on the streets or lacking adequate housing has “skyrocketed” for most major California cities, climbing at least 25 percent over the past several years, David Garcia, policy director at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California at Berkeley, said in September.

Trump has lamented the impact of the homelessness problem on the “prestige” of California’s cities and expressed sympathy for real estate investors whose property values or quality of life could be hurt by homelessness.

“We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco and numerous other cities destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Silicon Valley in September.

But the federal government has limited options when it comes to homelessness, because it does not control local and state zoning laws on housing development, said Salim Furth, a housing expert at the libertarian-leaning Mercatus Center who has worked with the White House on housing policy.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson has pushed for relaxing state and local zoning laws that housing experts agree constrict housing supply and therefore drive up the number of people without homes. Trump also signed an executive order in June that pertained to affordable housing regulations.

Furth said the federal government could tighten restrictions on grant funding to ensure the money is spent on critical housing needs, or look at repurposing existing federal land in large American cities to address the homeless crisis.

“I could imagine them declaring a homelessness emergency in seven cities and dedicate federal land” as an area where people could park RVs or install small units, Furth said, citing federally-owned golf land in Washington, DC. “But the truth is, in housing, there aren’t a lot of federal levers.”

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