While there is no of shortage of reasons to be terrified by the prospect of another four years of Donald Trump, allow me to add one more: Robert-fucking-Marbut, the greatest policy threat to homeless people since Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani, before he became America’s Mayor after 9/11, and then the rabid clown prince of the Trump administration, was an early popularizer of broken windows theory, the notion that visible poverty is an advance harbinger of pathological urban decay.
This victim-blaming ideology inspired New York’s infamously racist stop-and-frisk policy, birthed an entire generation of hostile architecture, and was the beginning of the wave of homeless criminalization that began in the early ’90s and continues today.
That was very, very bad. But Marbut, Trump’s appointee to lead the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, makes that look like the good old days.
Marbut first came to public attention as a consultant who shaped homeless policy in Texas and Florida. In 2009, he authored two studies that concluded that 92 percent of panhandlers will immediately spend your spare change on drugs, sex and alcohol.
An auspicious beginning to a truly awful career. No one ever went broke confirming people’s worst prejudices.
Marbut is known for an approach to homelessness that he calls the velvet hammer. While this is every bit as bad as it sounds, the “velvet” part is mostly euphemistic.
Trump’s appointee to lead the USICH believes that the core issue is that homelessness is too attractive, and that cities need to be more consistent in meting out the punishment.
He believes that giving food to people on the street is “enabling,” and that efforts like Chief Seattle Club’s “grab-and-go” meals program should be shut down.
He opposes Housing First — the cornerstone of enlightened policy on homelessness for more than two decades — and flips that approach on its head with what he calls “Housing Fourth,” the notion that housing is a privilege, and should only be offered once addiction and mental illness have been addressed.
He supports herding unsheltered homeless people into massive warehouse-like facilities that offer a bare minimum of services in exchange for compliant behavior.
A letter opposing his nomination, signed by 75 members of congress, declared that Marbut is “unqualified, unprepared, and disdainful of the mission” of USICH, while the policies he promotes are “cruel, punitive, ineffectual, and expensive.”
Last December, we got a taste of what USICH policy might look like under a second Trump administration when his Council of Economic Advisors issued their “State of Homelessness in America” report.
The report mirrored Marbut’s approach in stating that “more tolerable conditions for sleeping on the streets” increases homelessness, as does emergency shelter that offers “a minimal quality level.”
Even more disturbingly, the report attacked Rapid Rehousing and Housing First, and declared that the solution to homelessness is cheaper housing through deregulation. The National Alliance to End Homelessness warned that this approach “reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of homelessness, the programs that end homelessness, and the people who experience it.”
This is one more arena where the Trump administration will ignore the data in favor of ideology. Name a population that his base despises, and you will find ignorance and cruelty enshrined as public policy.
And yet, if you google “Robert Marbut homeless,” you’ll find that news of his exploits mostly ends last December, when Trump briefly politicized homelessness as one more urban problem for which Democratic leadership is to blame.
But don’t expect this blessedly low profile to last.
For now, beating up on homeless people has taken a backseat to embracing racism, nativism and misogyny, but be patient. Marbut’s “velvet hammer” is waiting to fall.
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
Read more in the Oct. 14-20, 2020 issue.