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Trump's homeless czar went undercover in Fresno. Now he's making plans for California

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 1/11/2020 By Kate Irby and Manuela Tobias, McClatchy Washington Bureau
Gavin Newsom wearing a suit and tie: Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks after being sworn in as the 40th governor of California in front of the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. © Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks after being sworn in as the 40th governor of California in front of the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif.

WASHINGTON — Before President Donald Trump picked him to reshape the nation’s programs for the homeless, Robert Marbut Jr. had already built a complicated legacy as a consultant in California cities and across the country.

In Fresno, Marbut left a lasting impression when he “embedded” in camps and recommended policies that some worried downplayed the importance of providing shelter to homeless people. Fresno rejected his major recommendations.

In St. Petersburg, Fla., where officials took most of his suggestions, he’s remembered as helping provide a shelter for homeless people, but one that many found too strict.

“It did make a difference and it continues to make a difference,” said Cliff Smith, the former assistant director of Pinellas County Health and Human Services for 35 years. “It’s not functional zero, but we also don’t have hundreds of people camped out by city hall anymore.”

Marbut, the new head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told McClatchy that he believes in getting the homeless into housing, but that officials first need to prioritize addressing what causes homelessness, such as substance abuse. He’s made it clear he believes California has a major crisis that has earned the federal government’s focus.

Marbut’s appointment could set up clashes between Trump and California state officials, who have embraced a “housing first” agenda that prioritizes getting homeless people into permanent and affordable housing over all else. Gov. Gavin Newsom this week unrolled a plan to put another $750 million into programs for the homeless in the next state budget and to expedite construction of new shelters.

Marbut declined to talk about specific steps he, Trump or the administration wanted to take in California, calling it “premature.”

In California, new data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggest homelessness is getting worse. Between 2018 and 2019, a January count found the homeless population in California had grown 16%, even as the nationwide homeless population only grew 3%.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson and President Trump have blamed California in the past few weeks for the national increase in homelessness.

“The homeless situation in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and many other Democrat Party run cities throughout the Nation is a state and local problem, not a federal problem,” Trump said in tweets earlier this week. “If however, the city or state in question is willing to acknowledge responsibility, and politely asks for help from the Federal Government, we will very seriously consider getting involved in order to make those poorly run Democrat Cities Great Again!”

The Trump administration tapped Marbut early in December to coordinate initiatives for people without housing across 19 different federal agencies. Marbut spent the last decade as a consultant advising dozens of local governments on homelessness population. At least half a dozen were in California, including Buena Park, Placer County, Chico, Fullerton, Siskiyou County and Fresno.

Marbut spotlighted California in his statement immediately after being approved to lead the agency, saying “this crisis is especially pronounced in California and other Western States.”

“We need to be honest with ourselves. Much of what we have been doing is not working,” he added. “If it were working, the number of individuals and families experiencing homelessness would be dropping.”

As the homeless count in Fresno shot up to almost 4,500 people in 2012, leaders agreed local solutions were not cutting it.

Community Conversations, a group of Fresno officials who work to address mental health and homelessness, took their search for help outside of the state.

Roughly a dozen members of the group flew to San Antonio to tour Haven For Hope, an unusual 23-acre homeless shelter complex opened by Marbut in 2010 that was making waves.

The center was celebrated for slashing downtown homelessness in San Antonio, but criticized for its stringent incentives program. Before accessing the services at the $100 million-plus facility, for example, people had to stay at Prospects Courtyard, an asphalt slab exposed to the elements, until they passed a drug test.

The visitors liked what they saw and wondered what Marbut could do for Fresno.

After a second trip, the Fresno Business Council contracted Marbut on behalf of Community Conversations. Fresno Community Hospital, a health foundation and members of the Fresno Stewardship Initiative helped fund his consulting.

Marbut spent several weeks in Fresno, between July 2013 and January 2014, over the course of eight trips. During one visit, he embedded in the homeless community by pretending he was homeless. In another, he visited homeless encampments alongside the police.

Marbut said the encampments were “some of the worst I’ve seen in the country.”

His final report recommended a center for homeless services in Fresno based on Haven for Hope. But excessive similarities to the San Antonio complex upset some members of Community Conversations.

“He was not really tailoring to the needs of our community, more so saying, here’s what I did, you need to do this,” said Shawn Jenkins, chair of the Fresno-Madera Continuum of Care. “It was one size fits all.”

In the Texas center, for example, the substance abuse treatment program was located inside the main complex. He recommended the same for Fresno.

“I said, why would we do that when we have unused capacity at our treatment facility?” Jenkins said. “His comment was, ‘We’ll just buy those buildings from you.’ That didn’t really seem like a good use of funds.”

Marbut denies that was ever an issue expressed to him at the time, calling it “Monday morning quarterbacking.” He said the real issue was cost, and that the county expected the city to pay for it and vice versa.

“It wasn’t that they didn’t want to take it, it’s that there was not money at hand,” Marbut said.

The group never detailed a budget or location for the campus. Jenkins recalled the center had a price tag of at least $50 million. Others recalled a cost of more than $100 million.

Some members of Community Conversations disagreed with Marbut’s emphasis on compelling someone to address personal issues before providing them food, money or shelter.

“His recommendations were really based upon an idea that a person makes a choice to be homeless and therefore can make a choice to get out of homelessness,” said Preston Prince, director of the Fresno Housing Authority. “We find homelessness more complex than that.”

According to Jenkins, the Business Council ended the contract as a result of growing discontent among the group.

The partnership was not fruitless, according to Lynne Ashbeck, senior vice president of community engagement and population wellness for Valley Children’s Healthcare, who helped establish Community Conversations.

Marbut’s proposals catalyzed various programs that have since been implemented in Fresno, like Multi-Access Agency Program, or MAP, where advisors help homeless individuals navigate the web of available services.

Fresno ultimately adopted the housing first model that prioritized rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing.

“Marbut was in that phase of, we can do better. And I think we did do better,” Ashbeck said. “People like him parachute in, say what they say, at least elevate the conversation, and then communities, it’s really our charge to take it from there.”

Homelessness in Fresno dropped by about 44% between 2012 and 2019, according to the Fresno-Madera Point in Time counts.

In Pinellas County and St. Petersburg, Fla., officials implemented Marbut’s recommendations for a shelter like Haven for Hope about a decade ago. In Pinellas, it’s called the Pinellas Safe Harbor Shelter, and it’s run by the sheriff’s office.

Marbut has claimed that “street-level homelessness” in the St. Petersburg area has been reduced significantly as to be functionally zero street-level homeless thanks to his recommendations.

Smith, who retired in 2018, said while he believes the shelter has been helpful, it is false to say homelessness is at functional zero in the area.

“I suppose what he means is that everyone who wants help can get it,” Smith said.

There were an estimated 5,946 homeless individuals in Pinellas County in 2010, which dropped to 2,415 in 2019, according to a report by Florida’s Council on Homelessness.

Pinellas and St. Petersburg have also switched to a housing first model, something that Marbut encouraged them to drop when he contracted with the city a second time in 2014.

“He said we’d be wasting our money if we went down that road,” Smith said.

Some homeless Floridians avoid the shelter because of the conditions it places on them.

Smith said many homeless people told him they’d “rather go to jail” than go to the shelter, where anyone caught not adhering to “very strict” rules — such as no alcohol use and requirements to look for work — would be sent to an outdoor pod where they had access to limited showers and portable toilets.

Marbut said due to how they had to obtain funds — through Department of Justice grants — Safe Harbor had to be thought of us a jail-diversion program rather than just homeless services. He says that’s something he wants to work on with his new position — making funds available through HUD rather than DOJ, so shelters can better serve communities.

“We have to rethink how federal funding is going out,” Marbut said. “One size fits all doesn’t work, so we need to allow for local customization when a locality wants to build a homeless assistance center.”


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