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Trump Names Robert Marbut To Head Federal Agency Focused On Homelessness


The Trump administration has named Robert Marbut to head the federal office focused on homelessness. He's made his name as a consultant to cities working on homelessness, but his appointment is controversial. Some people worry he'll move away from prioritizing housing and instead use tactics that are more punitive. NPR reporter Laurel Wamsley is here in the studio.

Welcome back.


CORNISH: What's the mission of this federal office?

WAMSLEY: It's called the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. And it's the only federal office that's totally focused on homelessness. And its director coordinates 19 agencies and departments within the federal government that have some responsibility for this issue - so that's Housing, Health, the Justice Department, Veterans, Employment and so on. So we're actually expecting to hear from the Trump administration any day now about what its plan is to tackle homelessness. And the new director's job will be to help implement that plan.

CORNISH: More about this new director. If he's got a lot of experience in this area, what are activists concerned about?

WAMSLEY: Well, as you mentioned, he has a lot of experience. He's been a consultant to a number of U.S. cities in recent years to try to solve their homelessness problems. And in each of those cities, he would make a customized plan, and that plan would focus on services more so than straight up housing. They - but they would call for large-scale shelters that would provide onsite treatment for various issues.

But as you mentioned, he's controversial. And that's because - one reason is that he opposes programs that, say, feed dinner to people on the street. He argues that programs like that keep people from finding more comprehensive services at shelters. And so he actually spoke with NPR back in 2014 about his philosophy.


ROBERT MARBUT: When I go into city, I say, if you really want a reduction, we're able to get about an 80% street reduction. But to do that, you have to totally retool everything you're doing. You can't be feeding on the street. But likewise, you have to provide and enhance and sometimes create programs that address the root causes because hunger is not the root cause of homelessness.

WAMSLEY: In recent years, a lot of cities have actually passed measures that ban panhandling or sleeping outdoors, even giving food to homeless people. And those are laws that some say effectively criminalizes homelessness.

CORNISH: Now, do Marbut's tactics have - do they work? Is there evidence that they're making progress?

WAMSLEY: Well, in some cities that Marbut has worked, it may be true that fewer people are living outside, though you could argue that's because it became illegal to work - to sleep there. So Marbut's critics say that his work has shifted taxpayer money away from proven solutions, like permanent and affordable housing, and instead funneled that money into big shelters that some have compared to prisons.

CORNISH: What does this appointment signal about the direction the Trump administration is taking? We understand that the former head of the agency appointed by President Obama left last month.

WAMSLEY: That's right. He was pushed out. I spoke with Nan Roman, who's the head of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. And what she told me is that Marbut's appointment shows a change from a focus on housing first to a focus on services. Housing first is the idea that you need to get people into housing before you can effectively solve the other problems that they might be having. So it's hard to solve mental health or substance abuse issues, to get a job or raise your kids, if you don't have a place to live. So they look at Marbut's approach in the different cities where he's been hired, and they say that it's too hard to - it can be hard to take advantage of those services if you don't have a stable place to sleep at night.

CORNISH: And in the end, how powerful will this office be?

WAMSLEY: Well, he doesn't - Marbut doesn't actually control a lot of resources. Instead, he's more about coordinating different agencies and sort of getting everyone to move in the right direction in terms of solving this problem.

CORNISH: That's reporter Laurel Wamsley.

Thanks so much.

WAMSLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.