On the tails of his administration’s trip to California, Trump blasted the state for the homelessness crisis, calling for the creation of involuntary camps where unhoused people could be locked out of site. His threats may become reality under the leadership of Robert Marbut, the private consultant Trump has picked to head the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, pending confirmation by the same council.
Robert Marbut is known for the use of the term “velvet hammer”, or his updated term “velvet gavel”, in his approach to homelessness. He had a consulting firm where he traveled around the country, disguising himself as a homeless person and then reporting back to local municipalities with his suggestions on how to solve homelessness, recommending a range of anti-homeless policies from the creation of mega shelters to the halting of food serving programs.
Marbut also is a big believer in the magnet theory — the disproven theory that homeless people are drawn to cities because of the services offered or the preferable climates. In every municipality where this has been studied it has been found that the majority of homeless people become homeless in the cities win which they now reside. Here in San Francisco, 70% of people experiencing homelessness lost their homes here in the city.
Perhaps even more appalling, Marbut has publicly stated he does not believe in Housing First, the practice of housing homeless people, which is broadly recognized as a proven evidence-based model that is most effective in addressing homelessness. In an interview with the Huffington post, he said “I believe in Housing Fourth.”
“Look around any major United States city and one can see people who are suffering as a result of the Trump government’s indifference to poverty and homelessness,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, the Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “Ironically, the government he leads is the very same one that caused this homelessness crisis by cutting the HUD budget by 78% in the early 1980’s. Trump is in a position where he can literally ensure every single person, from children to elders in the United States has a safe and decent place to call home. He has instead appointed a man to lead the country on this issue that holds the bizarre view that housing does not solve homelessness.”
While his consulting website has been removed, there have been exposés on his work including the Huffington Post piece entitled “How A Traveling Consultant Helps America Hide the Homeless”, published in 2015. Marbut follows a set of methods he developed himself, called “The Seven Guiding Principles of Transformation.” Marbut’s approach can be understood by looking at these principles and how he has applied them across the country.
The first two principles, “Move to a Culture of Transformation” and “Co-location and Virtual E-integration of as Many Services as Possible” require houseless people to live in close proximity under heavy surveillance. He regularly pushes for large shelters, instead of permanent housing. This is in line with failed approaches from the 1980s. His first major project, Haven for Hope, opened in 2010 with an annual budget of $15 million and room for 1,500 people. Five hundred of those people are required to sleep in an outside courtyard. Haven for Hope also has 550 closed-circuit television cameras and a staff of 40 security guards.
Principles four and five are “Reward Positive Behavior” and “Consequences for Negative Behavior,” which Diane Yentel, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, accurately described as “paternalistic, patronizing, filled with poverty blaming/shaming.” These principles fail to account for the structural issues that created the contemporary homeless crisis and instead fixate on blaming poor people for homelessness. The Pinellas Safe Harbor in Florida, which Marbut also helped to design, shows what those principles look like in practice. The shelter is operated by the County Sheriff’s office out of an old jail, and houseless people are required to sleep on the floor before “earning” a bed with good behavior. The Pinellas Safe Harbor was described in a 2014 report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture as a “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” choice for homeless people there.