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HUD Secretary Ben Carson, other top Trump officials to visit California as White House ramps up homeless push

The "skid row" area of Los Angeles in January 2018. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Senior administration officials, including Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, plan to visit Los Angeles in the coming days as part of President Trump’s push to crack down on homelessness in California, according to three people briefed on the plans.

The trip brings into sharp focus the Trump administration’s tightly held effort to spotlight and intervene in California’s growing homeless population. White House officials have not fully disclosed to local leaders the extent of their discussions, which have included probing the legality of razing tent camps and relocating large groups of homeless people.

Trump officials have expressed high interest in the surge in the homeless population in the “skid row” area of Los Angeles. Trump has sought to blame Democrats by accusing them of not doing enough to address the issue.

Carson’s visit could come as soon as next week and coincide with Trump’s trip to California, where the president will hold fundraisers. The planning remains in flux, and White House officials have been known to cancel visits at the last minute. But in a sign of how advanced discussions had become, other Trump administration officials this week secretly toured an abandoned Federal Aviation Administration facility in Hawthorne, roughly 20 miles southwest of “skid row.” Administration officials have discussed repurposing the site into a homeless shelter.

Trump has become particularly animated about the issue, complaining that years of failed policies by Democrats have fueled the crisis, and the issue is frequently covered by the conservative media. A senior White House aide said Trump had considered holding an event on homelessness during his California trip, but that is now unlikely to happen.

The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal the internal planning discussions.

Trump has ordered aides to figure out a sweeping plan to address staggering increases in homelessness in Los Angeles and other cities, particularly in California. One option being considered is relocating homeless people from “skid row” to the unused FAA facility in Hawthorne, government officials have told The Washington Post.

One government official involved in the planning questioned the feasibility and legality of the relocation plan.

“It is the stupidest idea I have ever heard,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid professional repercussions.

A HUD spokesman would not confirm Carson’s travel to California or reveal additional details about the administration’s homeless plan or potential use of the FAA site.

“While there are many state and local issues at play here, we’re looking at a range of options available to us at HUD — as well as other agencies — for possible federal action, if and where appropriate,” said a senior agency official who characterized the spike in homelessness in Los Angeles and San Francisco as “alarming.”

Carson made his first visit to “skid row” in April 2018, an experience he had said “you cannot forget.”

Carson on Wednesday told Fox Business Network’s “Varney & Co.” that the administration was actively working on solutions to California’s homeless crisis, to “take care of the acute phase and the more long-term phase.”

“I don’t want to get out ahead of the plan,” Carson said.

The Post reported this week that the administration is considering razing tent camps, creating new temporary facilities or refurbishing government facilities as part of Trump’s directive on homelessness. The number of families sleeping on the streets or lacking adequate housing has jumped 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.

The extent of the administration’s interest in the Hawthorne facility was not immediately known. One Hawthorne FAA facility was vacated about 14 months ago and turned back over to the General Services Administration, according to another government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private details. A GSA spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment about plans for the facility, and it was unclear whether that precise location was the one under consideration as part of the administration’s homeless plan.

The site is a six-story building with a glass-and-aluminum exterior, according to the Los Angeles Conservancy. It was for sale for $55 million as recently as this summer, according to Haidar Awad, a Hawthorne City Council member, but the city could not confirm it was recently toured by administration officials.

When the FAA was deciding what to do with the building, a private developer had proposed converting it into housing — a plan met with swift opposition from local residents. The site is near two affluent gated communities near Manhattan Beach.

“I guarantee you if this was the shelter it would cause a fight,” Awad said. “There would be an uproar.”

A resident whose gated complex abuts the FAA property said many of her neighbors are already voicing objections to living next to a potential homeless shelter.

“It’s very quiet around here. We rarely get any contact with the homeless, and when we do, it’s not pleasant. They’re very confrontational,” said the mother of two young boys. She did not want to be named, because she feared alienating her neighbors and her boss, who are big supporters of Trump. “Safety is a huge issue for me, which is why we chose a gated community.”

Trump administration officials signaled openness to a dramatic federal intervention in the burgeoning homeless population living in “skid row” during meetings with local homelessness advocates this week.

Advocates remain apprehensive about the administration’s intentions amid uncertainty over how or whether any Trump plan would help residents, said Jerry Jones, policy director at the Inner City Law Center, which performs legal and tenant services in Los Angeles.

“I think people are more concerned than they are hopeful,” Jones said. “There is concern about their sincerity in trying to get homeless people housed.”

About 15 administration officials visited “skid row” on a tour led by the Rev. Andy Bales, chief executive of the Union Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter there.

Bales said he pleaded with Trump officials for a major federal intervention involving the Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Emergency Management Agency to build shelters that could protect thousands of homeless people from contracting fatal diseases during the city’s rainy season.

He said he had stressed to them that it is within the federal government’s power to declare a disaster and hire contractors to set up new structures for the homeless, in Los Angeles and other cities across the country. He said members of the administration, led by HUD and the White House Domestic Policy Council, seemed receptive to the idea.

“This is a FEMA-like, Red Cross-like national disaster and needs to be treated as such,” said Bales, who lost his right leg in 2016 after he said he came into contact with flesh-eating bacteria while walking streets ridden with urine and feces. “I have prayed for federal intervention.”