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Trump pushing for major crackdown on homeless camps in California, with aides discussing moving residents to government-backed facilities

People walk by homeless people in San Francisco on Aug. 23, 2018. (Mason Trinca for The Washington Post)

President Trump has ordered White House officials to launch a sweeping effort to address homelessness in California, citing the state’s growing crisis, according to four government officials aware of the effort.

The planning has intensified in recent weeks. Administration officials have discussed using the federal government to get homeless people off the streets of Los Angeles and other cities and into new government-backed facilities, according to two officials briefed on the planning.

But it is unclear how they could accomplish this and what legal authority they would use. It is also unclear whether the state’s Democratic politicians would cooperate with Trump, who has sought to embarrass them over the homelessness crisis with repeated attacks on their competency.

Trump’s directive is part of his broader effort in recent months to shine a light on problems in California and a number of major U.S. cities, including Baltimore and Chicago. He has complained about what he says are years of failed Democratic leadership that have led to sustained poverty and crime.

Top officials representing the White House and the Department of Housing and Urban Development arrived in California this week for a round of meetings. A particular focus has been the skid row section of Los Angeles, officials said. The president is directly involved with the initiative, officials said, and has asked for updates.

Officials representing the Justice Department were also part of the tour, according to two government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details they were not authorized to discuss.

Among the ideas under consideration are razing existing tent camps for the homeless, creating new temporary facilities and refurbishing existing government facilities, two other officials said. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the planning hasn’t been publicly revealed. The changes would attempt to give the federal government a larger role in supervising housing and health care for residents.

The talks are fluid and concrete plans had not been reached.

Trump has repeatedly assailed Democratic politicians in California over the state’s growing homelessness issue, which he has called a “disgrace to our country.” He has also criticized liberal-led cities such as Baltimore as “rat and rodent infested.”

Planning also involves officials from the Department of Health and Human Services. An administration official cited the need to act based on concerns about disease and sewage problems affecting the homeless.

City officials gave a tour of the Jordan Downs housing project in Los Angeles on Tuesday to a team that included federal officials from Veterans Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Domestic Policy Council, the Justice Department and HUD, according to Branimir Kvartuc, spokesman for City Council member Joe Buscaino (D). About six city staffers and six federal officials were on that tour.

A White House spokesman said Trump signed an executive order in June that pertained to affordable housing regulations, and that the administration is continuing to seek new solutions for homelessness. Trump’s executive order created a new White House council on eliminating “regulatory barriers” that White House officials believe increase the cost of building new housing. Developers have said these restrictions drive up prices on housing and limit the supply.

“Like many Americans, the president has taken notice of the homelessness crisis, particularly in cities and states where the liberal policies are combining to dramatically increase poverty and public health risks,” said Judd Deere, a White House spokesman. “President Trump has directed his team to go further and develop a range of policy options for consideration to deal with this tragedy.”

Housing experts say homelessness in California has risen alongside housing and rental prices. That problem has been exacerbated by cuts to federal support for housing programs.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) criticized Trump’s push, saying that “yet again this is bravado for Trump’s base with no interest in the actual policy experts’ recommendations to solve an issue.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said in a statement that Trump should first cease cutting health care for low-income Americans and curbing access to government benefits for immigrants, but that “if the President is willing to put serious solutions — with real investment — on the table, California stands ready to talk.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) confirmed in a statement on Tuesday that his staff gave Trump administration officials a tour of a number of public housing projects and shelters in the city.

Trump previously hinted at potential unilateral federal action over homelessness, telling Fox News that he was “very seriously” considering acting on the issue.

“You take a look at what’s going on with San Francisco, it’s terrible. So we’re looking at it very seriously. We may intercede. We may do something to get that whole thing cleaned up. It’s inappropriate,” Trump told Tucker Carlson in July. “Now, we have to take the people and do something. We have to do something.”

Fox News has aired at least 18 segments on California homelessness in 2019, according to a review of Fox closed-captioning transcripts. None of the segments aired before June, and 10 aired in August alone. Trump is known to absorb content and ideas from Fox News.

In an interview aired on Fox News on July 1, President Trump said that homelessness in U.S. cities is “a disgrace” and that his administration “may intercede.” (Video: Reuters)

California’s homelessness crisis has intensified. The number of families either sleeping on the streets or lacking adequate housing has “skyrocketed” for most major California cities, climbing at least 25 percent over the past several years, said David Garcia, policy director at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California at Berkeley.

“Generally speaking, all the major cities have seen incredible increases. It’s a crisis,” Garcia said.

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But the Trump administration may have already taken actions that have exacerbated the problem, critics allege, such as tightening immigrants’ eligibility for federal assistance, which risks putting more families on the streets, Garcia added.

California also lacks a “right to shelter” law that in other states gives homeless people temporary shelters, meaning a large percentage of California’s homeless population ends up sleeping on the street or in their vehicles, according to Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit.

Complicating matters, California has enacted a number of restrictive zoning laws that drive up the cost of housing by constraining the state’s supply, she said, although some state lawmakers are pushing to relax those limits.

Los Angeles’s skid row holds about 5,000 homeless people, an 11 percent increase from last year, according to statistics published this summer by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

“Homelessness in California is absolutely a crisis that demands action from the federal, state and local level,” Yentel said, “but it’s hard to imagine the Trump administration is acting in good faith to solve it when they have made so many efforts in the last two years to worsen the crisis.”

The White House this year proposed cutting the HUD budget by about 20 percent, eliminating the programs that build and preserve homes for the lowest-income people, Yentel said. It has also proposed cutting federal rental assistance for a quarter of a million families, as well as evicting 55,000 children from subsidized housing.

Trump’s directive comes amid his feud with California politicians, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who represents San Francisco.

Trump called California a “disgrace to our country” at a rally earlier this year and has fought with the state’s Democratic lawmakers over a number of issues, including homelessness and protections for immigrants.

At a rally this year, he said: “What they are doing to our beautiful California is a disgrace to our country. It’s a shame."

JM Rieger contributed to this report.