While the lion’s share of public attention regarding the presidency has, in recent days, focused primarily on roiling conflicts abroad, another highly pressing issue has found itself in the crosshairs of the current administration on the home-front: that of mass homelessness in California. Normally, any national attention paid to this pervasive problem would be auspicious, but these are not normal times. Indeed, President Trump kicked off the exchange two weeks ago by levying an attack at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in two tweets, stating: “Crazy Nancy should clean up her filthy dirty District & help the homeless there… California leads the nation, by far, in both the number of homeless people, and the percentage increase in the homeless population – two terrible stats… (She) should focus on… helping her incompetent governor with the big homeless problem!”
Using a pressing humanitarian crisis as a politicized cudgel shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the current state of affairs. Of course, what’s lacking in this volley is any sense of context or circumspection in regards to the root causes of mass homelessness. It would not be politically expedient for the President to discuss, say, a lack of affordable housing provided in the state, because that simple truth doesn’t fall into line with acceptable political dogma for the party he finds himself leading. In actuality, the administration has slashed the budget for federal housing programs, and is also actively weighing a new bill which would allot additional resources to local police departments for the purpose of “remov(ing) homeless encampments.” These do not seem like the policies of a governing body interested in helping the homeless, merely one hoping to wield their plight like a blunt instrumental to batter rivals across the aisle.
Going a step further, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson released an official press release, which purported to “certify annual data” in assessing that the nationwide increase in homelessness in 2019 was “driven by major increases in California.” Given the fact that the full annual report on homelessness had not even been released yet, this pre-emptive statement from Carson seemed tailor-made for use by the President to bolster his argument against Pelosi and Governor Gavin Newsom. Moreover, the simple facts don’t add up. California does lead the nation in sheer volume of homeless people, but, going per capita, New York, Hawaii, and Washington D.C. all rank higher. Similarly, the highest percentage increase in homelessness in the last calendar year belonged to New Mexico, not California.
Despite the cynicism and opportunism inherent to these ploys, recent days have brought some more encouraging news. The LA Times reported that the President and Secretary Carson have struck up a new round of talks with Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, after the latter wrote a formal appeal to the Capitol, asking for federal help to tackle the homelessness crisis. Per a spokesman for the mayor: “Los Angeles is already taking bold steps forward, and more emergency assistance from our federal partners could help us scale up our work, and get our homeless neighbors off the street more quickly.” Though details remain sparse, it appears that additional resources for mental health and potential federal land grants for public housing are now on the table. Let this turn around be a lesson for our political class — if real strides are to be made on the issue of homelessness, the solution lies in civil collaboration, not ad-hominems and threats. California’s homeless are human beings; Americans like anyone else. They should be treated as such, and finding a way to free them from the shackles of destitution ought to always take priority over weaponizing their suffering for petty victories on Capitol Hill.