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Trump Administration’s Plan to Crack Down on Homeless Encampments Raises Alarms

by National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
September 12, 2019, Washington, DC – On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that President Trump ordered White House officials to “crack down” on homeless encampments in California. While the Law Center agrees that unsheltered homelessness is a crisis in California and across the country, we are concerned about the Administration’s plans to displace people without real attention to alternatives.
“Simply razing encampments without ensuring adequate alternatives is not only inhumane, costly, and counterproductive, it would also violate fundamental constitutional rights,” said Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the Law Center.

One solution for this crisis is unused federal property; an existing law requires federal agencies to make such property—buildings and land—available at no cost to use for housing, shelter, job training, and other services to aid people living with homelessness. Law Center reports summarize the program—Title V of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act—and our multi-year efforts to enforce compliance. The program has lagged—especially under the current Administration; since January 2017, 16 applications have been denied and only 7 approved. We urge the Administration to prioritize this underutilized resource.

In California and beyond, we hope the Administration will follow their own Federal Plan to End Homelessness, developed with 19 federal agencies and focused on permanent solutions and reducing the criminalization of homelessness. These agencies have put forth guidance on ending encampments through housing that should be the baseline for any efforts to end the California crisis, and our Tent City USA report and Encampment Principles and Best Practices build on these.

Solutions should focus on Housing First, since the primary cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. Housing First approaches provides permanent housing options, or at a minimum, temporary housing with a path to permanency. “What homeless Americans desperately need is affordable housing—but this Administration is trying to cut already grossly-inadequate funding even more and evict vulnerable families,” Foscarinis said.

According to our Housing Not Handcuffs report, the Housing First model is not only more effective at ending homelessness and improving formerly homeless persons’ life and health quality, it is also more cost-effective than endlessly cycling people through courts, jails, and back onto the streets. These are solutions that resonate with both social liberals and fiscal conservatives, and Housing First is the strategy recognized by HUD under both Democratic and Republican Administrations as the best way to end homelessness.

Legal Director Eric Tars stated, “When we end encampments through housing, we all win. People are housed, streets are clean, at a lower cost. When we end encampments through criminalization, we all lose.” If the Administration develops solutions with evidence-based best practices focused on Housing First, they can create a positive example throughout the country.

People experiencing homelessness have had increasing support from the Courts when law enforcement has displaced them without adequate notice, storage for their belongings, or appropriate places where they can sleep and shelter themselves. The Law Center hopes the Administration will not adopt a “crack down” approach, but if plans sacrifice the Constitutional rights of our unhoused neighbors, we stand ready, as we have before, to protect them in court.

The Law Center agrees with Trump that the homelessness crisis is a “disgrace to our country,” which is why the federal government should invest in affordable, supportive housing. Housing, Not Handcuffs is the best way to end homelessness.


The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (the Law Center) is the only national organization dedicated solely to using the power of the law to prevent and end homelessness. With the support of a large network of pro bono lawyers, we address the immediate and long-term needs of people who are homeless or at risk through outreach and training, advocacy, impact litigation, and public education.
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