Trump and Abbott Initiate Efforts to Demonize Homeless People

Texas Governor Greg Abbott seems to have taken a page out of Trump’s playbook.

The Austin homeless policy that Abbott objects to is that the city council recently voted to decriminalize homelessness. But what I find most interesting about Abbott’s letter to the mayor of Austin is that it would be like a Democratic governor of a blue state threatening a rural mayor that if he or she didn’t solve the opioid crisis in their area, state agencies would move in to take over. As a demonstration that both sides don’t do it, what we see instead is that Democrats offer assistance for things like prevention, treatment, and enforcement.

In September, when Trump visited California, he talked to reporters about the issue of homelessness in that state.

“We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco and numerous other cities destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening,” Trump said, according to a report from the White House news pool. “And I’m speaking to tenants — in some cases foreign people, foreign tenants — but they have where they’re tenants in buildings throughout various cities in California, and other places … where they want to leave the country. They can’t believe what’s happening.”

He mentioned police getting sick of addressing homelessness problems, then returning to those tenants.

“We have people living in our … best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings and pay tremendous taxes, where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige,” he said. “In many cases, they came from other countries, and they moved to Los Angeles or they moved to San Francisco because of the prestige of the city, and all of a sudden they have tents. Hundreds and hundreds of tents and people living at the entrance to their office building. And they want to leave.

“And the people of San Francisco are fed up, and the people of Los Angeles are fed up,” he added. “And we’re looking at it, and we’ll be doing something about it.”

Philip Bump made a critical observation about how the president framed the issue.

The focus of his concern, as presented to reporters on Air Force One, wasn’t Americans or veterans, but foreigners who rent or buy high-end real estate, people who get frustrated at seeing those experiencing homelessness at the entrance to their office buildings. It’s the sort of complaint that might resonate with someone who owns real estate in major U.S. cities that is used for housing or office space.

Someone, in other words, like Donald Trump, whose Trump Organization owns 30 percent of what used to be known as the Bank of America tower in San Francisco, an office building in that city. The Trump Organization also owns properties in Los Angeles and, of course, New York City. Trump has been in the business of appealing to real estate investors for a lot longer than he’s been in the business of running the United States, so it’s not really a surprise he would view the homelessness problem through the lens of someone who needs to get people to see Trump Tower as the pinnacle of refinement.

As is always the case with this president, he views everything through the lens of his own self interest.

But when it comes to homelessness in major urban areas, the issue also provides people like Trump and Abbott with a way to malign Democrats for their lack of progress in solving the problem. Trump uses it as another weapon in his war against California, while Abbott wields it against the liberal bastion of Austin.

What is most striking about the way these Republicans have framed the problem of homelessness, however, is that they express no concern whatsoever for the people living on the streets. Their only concern is how everyone else is affected. In the video above, Governor Abbott talks about businesses struggling to keep their sidewalks clear, homeowners feeling threatened, and homeless people interfering with the rights of way. Those concerns are not invalid. But what about the people who, due to the crisis of unaffordable housing—often combined with physical and mental disabilities—find themselves without a roof over their head?

If Trump and Abbott follow through on their plans to take control of the situation away from local governments, what we are likely to see is the same kind of dehumanization of homeless people as we’ve witnessed with immigrants and refugees. As Jake Bittle noted, previews of the Trump administration’s plan suggest that they want to “demolish tent cities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, increase the ‘role of police’ in monitoring homelessness, and potentially incarcerate the homeless in government-run facilities.”

The idea that Trump is using this issue to blame state and local governments is further confounded by his budget proposals, as reported in the Guardian (emphasis mine).

Trump’s budget would cut billions of dollars of funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which helps provide low-income housing.

Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, warned in a statement that the proposal contained some of the deepest housing cuts since “President Reagan dramatically reduced funding in the early 1980s. Reagan’s deep spending cuts ushered in a new age of homelessness.”

In an interview, she said the reductions might result in 200,000 low-income people no longer receiving rental assistance, putting them at risk of losing the roofs over their heads…

The cuts are explained in the proposal as reflecting a commitment to “fiscal responsibility”, and it foresees the slack being taken up by state and local governments and the private sector.

Of course, those are the kinds of facts that are meaningless to people like Trump and Abbott. Their attempts to use the most vulnerable among us (ie, immigrants and homeless people) in order to fear-monger for political gain are nothing short of deplorable.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.