After the president had threatened to intervene in California, Congress in December approved new restrictions on how the administration could use certain homelessness funds. Attorneys with the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are reviewing that language, and it is not clear whether it would complicate the administration’s efforts to address the situation in California, officials said.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about internal planning matters.
The White House strategy comes after Trump spent months castigating California’s Democratic officials for the state’s growing homeless population. The president’s insistence since last summer that advisers do something about the “disgusting” problem of homelessness in major U.S. cities spurred a prolonged effort to find solutions across several federal agencies.
Homelessness in the United States rose for a third straight year in 2019, federal officials said in December, primarily because of the continued increase in California.
In the fall, White House officials were considering action to force homeless people in California cities into federal encampments, and officials from multiple federal agencies toured an abandoned Federal Aviation Administration site as a potential place to relocate people.
“The president has never been looking for a takeover from the federal government," White House spokesman Judd Deere said. "The president has seen a problem state and local leadership have failed to deal with and asked the team to prepare options for his consideration.”
Congress included restrictive new language in a year-end spending package that sets parameters for a pot of funding related to addressing homelessness. Administration officials previously thought they had wide discretion to spend these funds, according to one person with knowledge of internal planning.
Also, the Supreme Court decided in December not to take up a lower court’s ruling protecting homeless people from prosecution for sleeping outdoors. A favorable ruling from the Supreme Court could have made it easier to enact administration plans to use law enforcement to address homelessness.
Trump said last week on Twitter that the federal government would help cities combat homelessness if they ask for help “politely.” That marked a shift in tone from September, when Trump told reporters about California’s homelessness crisis: “We’re looking at it, and we’ll be doing something about it.”
The administration’s position appears to lower the chances the White House defies the wishes of state and local officials in implementing its own homelessness initiatives.
Garcetti and HUD Secretary Ben Carson in recent days discussed working together on providing federal help for the city’s homeless population, as well as the possible provision of federal facilities, according to a person familiar with the conversation. The conversation was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.
The officials have exchanged letters, and Carson and Garcetti are expected to meet in Washington this month when Garcetti attends a conference of mayors, the person said.
Details of the potential collaboration remain vague, and no plans have been finalized. HUD’s homeless count in California was 22.5 percent higher in 2019 than in 2010.
Congressional negotiators put language in the $1.4 trillion appropriations package intended to limit the wide discretion administration officials could have had to spend that money, according to two people with knowledge of the drafting process.
The legislation also states that the administration must “receive prior written approval” from House and Senate appropriators before using certain recaptured funding of these grants for other purposes.
Several months ago, Trump was struck by conservative television coverage of conditions in Los Angeles’s Skid Row area and wanted the needles, cardboard boxes and trash to be cleaned up, according to a senior administration official.
Trump was confounded that there were restrictions that prevented the federal government from taking over, the person said. His focus on the homelessness problem in California also presents an opportunity to try to embarrass House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Trump has talked less about the homeless crisis in recent weeks, focusing instead on his impeachment and conflict in the Middle East.
Three days after the White House meeting this month, Trump wrote on Twitter that the homelessness crisis “is a state and local problem, not a federal problem,” but that the federal government could help.
"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!” Trump tweeted.
Trump officials have pointed to rising homelessness in major California cities, but critics said the effort represented a political attempt by the president to embarrass his Democratic rivals in the state.
The Washington Post reported in September that administration officials were considering razing tent camps for the homeless, creating temporary facilities and refurbishing government facilities. 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, said David Garcia, policy director at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California at Berkeley.
Trump has blamed Democratic politicians for allowing homelessness to grow in cities they control. “We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco and numerous other cities destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One in September.