Some wins are not what they seem. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Martin v. Boise, the 9th Circuit federal court decision that says prohibiting camping in public outdoor space constitutes cruel and unusual punishment unless alternate shelter is provided.
Will this change much here in Seattle? Probably not. Blocking a public sidewalk is still sufficient reason to remove an encampment without notice.
So long as one provides nominal shelter alternatives, Martin v. Boise still allows criminalizing approaches to homelessness. Things are shifting fast at the federal level, and in the wrong direction.
Last week, President Donald Trump appointed Robert Marbut Jr. as the new head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. The USICH coordinates policy across 19 federal agencies and has vast influence over how the federal government approaches homelessness.
“How bad is he?” you might ask? Is he Ben Carson bad? An incompetent placeholder designed to kill public housing through malevolent neglect? Or is he more Betsy DeVos bad, actively handing public education off to predatory private interests?
“As someone to head the USICH,” said Sara Rankin, the director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University, “I could not have picked a more nightmarish scenario.”
As a consultant working to shape homeless policy mostly in Texas and Florida, Marbut favors what he calls the “velvet hammer.” This is as bad as it sounds. Marbut believes cities should be tougher on homeless people, and supports herding them into massive facilities that offer a bare minimum of services in exchange for compliant behavior.
A letter opposing his nomination, signed by 75 members of Congress, said Marbut himself is “unqualified, unprepared, and disdainful of the mission” of USICH, while the policies he promotes are “cruel, punitive, ineffectual, and expensive.”
Rankin has coined Marbut’s name as a verb, and the trend he represents, she said, is spreading throughout government.
“To ‘marbut’ is to be willfully ignorant of evidence and facts,” she explained. “If you look at his policies, every single one of them is in direct opposition to all established evidence-based procedures we should be supporting.”
This, Rankin said, is increasingly the hallmark of public policy under the Trump administration. “An emotional instinct is not the same as evidence. The distrust of science has percolated into policymaking. ‘Marbutting’ is a widespread cultural pathology.”
We recently saw this when the President’s Council of Economic Advisers released a report on homelessness that essentially argued that homelessness is increasing because food programs and shelter have made it too comfortable.
The report attacks Housing First, the well-established notion that housing provision is the cornerstone of ending homelessness, and argues instead for deregulation of the housing industry.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness said the report “misrepresents key programs for ending homelessness, ignores the vast evidence base to support best practices, and overstates the potential of deregulation as an answer to the nation’s affordable housing crisis. … It is a simplistic response to an extraordinarily complex issue.”
In other words, the President’s Council of Economic Advisers “marbutted” their conclusions.
President Trump, obviously, is the Marbutter-in-Chief. This is a man who directed the Environmental Protection Agency to fine San Francisco for supposedly allowing needles and human waste to flow through storm drains into the Pacific Ocean, an allegation that city denies.
Rankin believes we are on the verge of an ugly new chapter in homeless policymaking that begins with backlash to the Boise decision. Cities and municipalities, she said, will be “fighting for the right to punish people.”
“Within the year, I’m expecting an executive order from Trump to do something terribly aggressive in California. This will remove people from sight and make it hard for us to know what has happened to them. And there won’t be a whole lot we can do to stop it. This direction would not be inconsistent with what’s allowed under Martin v. Boise,” Rankin said.
In other words, buckle-up, buttercup, and settle in for the long haul. We’re heading into uncharted territory.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
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