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White House Policy Paper on Homelessness Misrepresents Evidence, Drives Wrong Conclusions

by National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
September 17, 2019, Washington, DC — On Monday evening, President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors released a white paper that ignores and directly contradicts the evidence-based consensus of 19 of his own agencies. Last year, those agencies published the Federal Strategic Plan to End Homelessness, stating that housing, low barrier shelter, and decriminalization is the best way to end homelessness.
“The President and I agree that homelessness is a disgrace to our nation,” said Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (Law Center). “But his prescription to address it is based on outdated and disproven myths, not the concrete evidence documented by the 78 cities and three states that have already ended veteran homelessness using the Housing First approach.”

The white paper attempts to link homelessness to over-regulation of the housing market, but in fact dramatic cuts to federal funding for subsidized housing, initiated by President Reagan, led to the birth of modern homelessness. These cuts have never been fully restored under either Republican or Democratic Administrations. Now funding is so inadequate that only one of four people impoverished enough to qualify for help actually receive it.

The White House report acknowledges, “Policies intended solely to arrest or jail homeless people simply because they are homeless are inhumane and wrong.” But then it goes on to say homeless people are “too comfortable” and “…when paired with effective services, policing may be an important tool to help move people off the street and into shelter or housing…” This is an absurd statement; current federal estimates state there are only 286,203 emergency shelter beds for 553,000 people—and this is almost certainly a gross underestimate of the gap. Beds that do exist may have religious, gender, ability, or other barriers to people accessing them.

“The President’s white paper claims that the streets and shelters are somehow ‘too comfortable’, which discourages people from getting out of homelessness, but this just recycles the disproven and racist ‘welfare queen’ trope of the 1980s and ‘broken windows’ of the ‘90s,” said Eric Tars, Legal Director of the Law Center. “How is giving someone an arrest record or a fine they can’t pay for sleeping on the streets when there isn’t a legal place for them to be is going to help them?”

Most worrisome is that this white paper appears to be lay a policy basis for what Trump is reported to be considering—to raze encampments and simply “sweep” people off the streets. Such policies waste law enforcement resources on non-violent offenders, forces law enforcement into confrontations with individuals in crisis that they are not well-trained to handle, and essentially uses the most expensive form of housing—jail cells—as our de facto shelter system. This approach is worse than even doing nothing, for it expends public dollars in a way that, rather than ending homelessness, prolongs it by saddling already burdened people with criminal records and fines for the “crime” of simply for trying to survive.

“The Law Center will not let our policies be turned back to the 1980s approaches that created modern homelessness in the first place,” concluded Foscarinis. “Whether looked at from a moral, fiscal, legal, or policy angle, housing, not handcuffs, is the 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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