Since Christmas, President Donald Trump has been cynically using homelessness as a political cudgel to attack blue-state Democrats who are making his life difficult.
Trump posted a string of tweets attacking Democratic politicians in California and New York for not doing more to help the homeless populations in their states — his implication being that they’re too distracted by impeachment or other legislative and legal oversight.
On December 26, Trump posted four tweets blasting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for not doing more to address homelessness.
“Crazy Nancy should clean up her filthy dirty District & help the homeless there. A primary for N?” Trump wrote in one.
“California leads the nation, by far, in both the number of homeless people, and the percentage increase in the homeless population - two terrible stats,” he wrote in another. “Crazy Nancy should focus on that in her very own district, and helping her incompetent governor with the big homeless problem!”
The causes of the homelessness crisis in California, which contains about a quarter of the country’s homeless population, are complex. Lack of affordable housing is a major factor. Substance abuse is another. Research has shown that simply providing long-term housing for people experiencing homelessness is the best way to help. Trump, however, has reduced the entire problem to Democratic governance.
In another particularly troubling tweet on December 28, Trump urged New York officials to stop investigating him and do something about homelessness, adding that the ongoing investigations “make me hate them even more than I should.”
So sad to see that New York City and State are falling apart. All they want to do is investigate to make me hate them even more than I should. Governor Cuomo has lost control, and lost his mind. Very bad for the homeless and all!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2019
Later that day, Trump combined attacks on California and New York officials into a single tweet and threatened some sort of federal intervention if officials in those states don’t take action.
“California and New York must do something about their TREMENDOUS Homeless problems. They are setting records!” Trump wrote. “If their Governors can’t handle the situation, which they should be able to do very easily, they must call and ‘politely’ ask for help. Would be so easy with competence!”
This isn’t a totally new tactic for Trump; he attacked officials in California over the same issue earlier this year and has directed his administration to crack down on homeless camps in the state.
Given that and the tone of these tweets — which continued into Sunday, when Trump tweeted, “Crazy Nancy Pelosi should spend more time in her decaying city and less time on the Impeachment Hoax!” — one might think that Trump actually has a plan to deal with homelessness. But in fact, his administration’s plan is to basically criminalize it.
Trump understands homelessness as an aesthetic issue for rich people like him
The cynicism of Trump’s posturing about the homeless is revealed by his budget proposals, which each year have proposed draconian cuts to federal affordable housing programs that are meant to help people find homes and stay in them. Instead of working to make sure resources are available to people experiencing homelessness or vulnerable to it, Trump’s preferred approach amounts to punishing people who are living on the streets.
Kriston Capps of CityLab reported two weeks ago that Trump is expected to soon sign an executive order on homelessness that would “assign new resources to police departments to remove homeless encampments and even strip housing funds from cities that choose to tolerate these encampments.” That approach is at odds with the housing-first one broadly favored by experts on housing and by President Obama, who presided over a dramatic nationwide decrease in homelessness.
But Trump seems to regard homelessness not as a humanitarian issue but an aesthetic problem for rich people and a political one for Democrats. Last summer, for instance, he told reporters that homeless people are ruining our “best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings, where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige.”
In July, Trump did an interview with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson — who often portrays homelessness as something akin to a vermin infestation — and indicated profound confusion about the causes of homelessness, which he seems to think only became a problem around the time he took office.
In this single clip, Trump:— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 2, 2019
1) Says homelessness in cities "a phenomena that started 2 years ago"
2) Blames "the liberal establishment" for it
3) Claims he personally ended homelessness in DC (he didn't)
4) Says federal govt "may intercede" to "clean up" blue cities like SF & LA pic.twitter.com/E4o9mVwPud
Trump has had less to say about homelessness since House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry in late September. But now, stewing about impeachment over the holidays at the private Mar-a-Lago club in Florida that he still owns and profits from, Trump seems to believe the issue is a political winner for him.
The president of the United States seems to only care about the states that support him
It is true that homelessness in California especially has spiked in recent years. The New York Times reported last summer that over the previous two years, homelessness in Orange County increased by 42 percent. Los Angeles County saw a 12 percent increase over that same timeframe, and in San Francisco — which encompasses Pelosi’s distract — the increase was 17 percent.
Since Trump is ostensibly president of the entire United States, you’d think he’d regard himself as partly responsible. But instead, he’s trying to make it seem as though the problem is one his Democratic opponents created and could easily solve — if only they weren’t so distracted by investigating and impeaching him.
It’s a politically useful tool, and one that he’s wielding strategically: The fact that Trump is attacking officials in New York and California but not ones in Florida, the state with the nation’s third-largest homeless population, is not a coincidence. Trump’s approval rating is already somewhere between 25 points and 30 points below underwater in the first two states, and he doesn’t need them to win reelection. Florida, however, is a different story.
The cynicism of Trump’s attacks on officials in New York and California on the issue of homelessness is arguably surpassed by the naiveté of his suggesting that a solution to the problem is just one phone call to the Oval Office away. As San Francisco Mayor London Breed alluded to in a statement she released last September when Trump was lambasting the city for not doing more to address the issue, his understanding of the issue is rudimentary at best.
Breed, who announced a plan last year to open 1,000 new shelter beds by 2020 and led a successful campaign to pass a $600 million bond for services and affordable housing for people at risk of homelessness, said officials in her city “are focused on advancing solutions to meet the challenges on our streets, not throwing off ridiculous assertions as we board an airplane to leave the state.” Trump, meanwhile, favors funding cuts and punitive measures, including ones as drastic as possibly razing tent camps.