On Homelessness, Trump And Dems Both Look To Police
Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.
“Donald Trump has long understood that he can leverage homelessness to motivate people,” writes David Graham for The Atlantic. “In the early 1980s, the developer was desperate to get tenants out of a building he owned in Manhattan so that he could tear it down and build a new one. The tenants were not obliging, so Trump tried a series of moves to force them to vacate—including offering to house homeless New Yorkers in the building, hoping revulsion would scare the tenants out.”
As president, Trump is hoping that feelings of disgust toward homeless people will win him political points. The administration has begun focusing attention on homelessness, meeting the crisis not with compassion but rather with a threat: more policing. A report released this week by the White House Council of Economic Advisers “focused on the use of policing, apparently a gesture at the idea of rounding homeless people up,” Graham writes. “We have people living in our … best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday, “where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige.” He also lamented that homelessness has upset foreigners who moved to the U.S. for its prestige.
Policing, of course, will not solve the homelessness crisis and can be expected to make matters worse. The Daily Appeal spoke to Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College, whose book “The End of Policing” examines these questions. He first was drawn into the study of mass criminalization through work on homelessness in San Francisco. “The criminalization of homelessness is how broken windows gets started both in California and in New York,” he said. “It achieves political saliency as a tool for managing public homelessness. Politicians go out and campaign on a broken windows platform, saying they’re going to use the police to restore order and what they’re talking about is homelessness primarily.”
For 30 years, Vitale said, politicians have signaled that they are not going to do anything about homelessness, but they are going to pour resources into addressing it using the criminal legal system. It’s “a complete capitulation to this kind of austerity politics that says that cities can’t actually build public housing or meaningfully intervene in the housing market; they can just manage the symptoms of these market forces through these emergency shelters backed up by criminalization.”
It’s particularly ironic that Trump would turn to police to solve the problem, Vitale adds, given that “the federal government is a big contributor to the fact that cities have been hamstrung in their efforts to intervene in housing markets.” For the Trump administration “to say we need to solve this with more police is a real slap in the face because the federal government is the agency that could pump resources into this to make it better. But it’s clear that they’re going to make homelessness worse, not better.”
Trump has also used the issue to point fingers at Democratic lawmakers. He is equally incorrect in that respect, in large part because his approach does not differ, in many cases, from theirs. “Many of the same California Democrats who have criticized Trump’s proposed crackdown have also sought to criminalize homelessness,” sociology Ph.D. candidate Chris Herring writes in the Washington Post.
Governor Gavin Newsom criticized Trump’s response to homelessness, but Herring notes that as mayor of San Francisco, Newsom pushed a successful ballot initiative to make it illegal to sit or lie on city sidewalks. Democratic State Senator Scott Wiener said this month that Trump should “back off,” but he co-sponsored a successful ballot initiative that bars camping in public spaces. San Francisco Mayor London Breed has said that “simply cracking down on homelessness without providing the housing people need is not a real solution,” but under her leadership, the city’s police department has more than doubled the number of officers assigned to addressing homeless complaints and increased the number of sanitation workers dedicated to sweeping encampments. “Voters in these liberal cities not only continually pass these laws, they call on the police to enforce them,” Herring adds. “In 2017, San Francisco police were dispatched nearly 100,000 times for caller complaints of homeless concerns.”
In New York City this month, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced that it would hire 500 new transit police officers, after Governor Andrew Cuomo complained about “quality of life” issues on the subway. “The hiring will nearly double the number of MTA police,” reports Stephen Nessen for Gothamist, “which currently stands at 783, and comes after the agency deployed 500 existing officers in June, taking both transit and NYPD off their other beats to crack down on what it said was an increasing fare evasion and assault on workers problem.” Most New Yorkers, however, just want the subway to run smoothly. Good-government group Reinvent Albany wrote in a statement: “This proposal to hire huge numbers of new MTA cops while basic subway and bus operations are being cut is a bad joke of government dysfunction, waste and cluelessness.”
“Trump is just doing exactly what [Manhattan District Attorney Cy] Vance and Cuomo and [New York Mayor Bill] de Blasio are doing, which is trying to solve quality of life problems through intensive policing,” Vitale explained. “It’s a step in the wrong direction but it’s not a new step. It’s been the dominant approach in most places.” For voters, the task now is to take all politicians to task when they propose police as a solution to homelessness, not just those politicians on the other side of the aisle.