As President Donald Trump increasingly makes homelessness a political issue, Hawaii should stick to its principles and invest more in what’s working, a former federal official told lawmakers this week.

Matthew Doherty, who headed the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness until he was forced out in November, said Trump’s team is increasing criticism of states struggling with homelessness, heightening stigmatization of homeless people and moving away from proven solutions like Housing First.

“We’re going to see an increased politicization of homelessness,” he said. “It’s going to increasingly be used as a wedge issue and a way that officials get blamed rather than get partnered with to find solutions.”

Matthew Doherty, former executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told lawmakers to ignore political messages from the federal government and invest in what they know is working. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2020

At a housing summit before state lawmakers, Doherty offered advice: Stay above the fray.

“You’re going to see increased messaging that homelessness is not a federal responsibility,” he said. “You’re going to need to be prepared to be clear about the responsibility you are taking at the state and local levels but the need for partnership with the federal government if you’re going to get the scale of solutions that you need.” 

The messaging Doherty warned about is already being delivered.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson recently told Fox that homelessness is “a state and local government responsibility.”

But at the same time, Trump has indicated he plans to take the issue into his own hands, particularly in California where the president has lamented homeless people are harming the “prestige” of some cities.

The president has used the issue to attack his political opponents, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who represents San Fransisco, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Trump told Fox last year that federal officials may “do something to get that whole thing cleaned up” in San Fransisco. According to The Washington Post, White House officials have discussed razing California homeless encampments and moving people to government facilities.

A report by CityLab indicated Honolulu is on a list of potential sites where the federal government may employ a similar plan. If that’s the case, a representative for Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office said the city knows nothing about it.

President Donald J Trump waves to media after arrival to Joint Base Hickam Pearl Harbor.
President Donald Trump, pictured at Joint Base Hickam Pearl Harbor, has attacked Democratic leaders of places with high rates of homelessness. He hasn’t yet targeted Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

According to a federal report released this month, New York, Hawaii and California are the states with the highest rates of homelessness per capita. But the situation in Trump’s hometown of Washington, D.C., was the worst of all: it has a homelessness rate of 94 people per 10,000. Hawaii’s is 45. The national average is 17.

But Trump hasn’t hammered DC about that. Instead, last year he denied the problem even existed. He falsely claimed when he noticed DC homelessness emerging, “I ended it very quickly.”

“When we have leaders of the world coming in to see the president of the United States and they’re riding down a highway, they can’t be looking at that,” he said. “I really believe that it hurts our country.”

Doherty’s replacement at the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness is also an indication of the Trump administration’s philosophy. Former consultant Robert Marbut Jr. was opposed by housing advocates for many reasons, but a major one is his rejection of Housing First. Using the proven best practice started by the George W. Bush administration, homeless people are placed in housing immediately and then given wraparound services to address other needs like mental health and substance abuse.

Marbut believes homeless people need to solve their personal problems before being allowed to enter housing, according to a 2017 profile by HuffPost. He has also advocated for the banning of panhandling, crackdowns on food handouts and the criminalization of sidewalk sleeping – all policies that housing experts say are counterproductive.

At the Hawaii Capitol, Doherty told lawmakers to prepare to hear misinformation about Housing First.

“You’re going to see those critiques offered with no evidence, but the critiques are going to be stronger than ever,” he said.  “You’ll see an emphasis on short-term solutions rather than lasting solutions and efforts to push people to be invisible rather than actually address their housing needs.”

Doherty, who was on Oahu for vacation, urged legislators to stick to what’s working and bring successful efforts like Housing First to scale.

“I’m going to strongly encourage you to resist the efforts to politicize the issue and stay focused on what you are doing, what you know is working and the pathways you’re on,” he said.

Partners In Care Executive Director Laura Thielen said Doherty’s presentation was a good reminder that Hawaii’s officials and advocates need to work together as a team, something they already do but could improve on.

“One of the big things that scares me is if they’re really pushing this back onto the local and state (governments), then it makes us have to work even harder together,” said Thielen, who leads a coalition of Oahu’s homeless providers. “So we need to shore up all of our relationships locally. We need to be able to go to the federal government for very specific things and be able to back it up. If we can’t back it up, we won’t get the support.”

Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, said he’s taken note of the federal government’s attitude toward places like California and New York. He said he’s focused on continuing Hawaii’s “all hands on deck” approach.

“We need everyone to come together from the federal, state and local level,” he said. “Now is the time where we have to demonstrate what we have been doing, the importance of having a housing-focused approach.”

It’s a strategy that’s working, he said. The number of homeless people counted in Hawaii dropped in 2019, allowing the Aloha State’s national ranking to fall from No. 1 to No. 2, behind New York. The state has reduced homelessness by 19% since 2016 as permanent housing placements have increased, Morishige said.

“If you look at the data, it’s clear,” he said. “We need to continue what we’ve been doing.”

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