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“Clear the Camps!” Is the New “Build the Wall!”

Trump adapts his "immigration crisis" script for homeless Americans.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Two troubling weeks have passed since news broke of the Trump administration’s “major crackdown” on the homeless. Of course, these rumored plans are thin on details; as with other prior announcements, they may be a kind of horrific trial balloon, to determine how far the administration can go. But even in the weedy, vague statements released so far, familiar outlines emerge. In blaming people in California who are homeless for pollution and crime, and then calling for their removal, the president turns to a ready script, swapping one “crisis” for another. As the Senate moves to block President Trump’s national emergency declaration on immigration, homelessness may be his new border fight.

Early reports of some of the plans officials are discussing, including “options to clear” homeless camps, raise nearly as many questions—is such federal action even legal?—as fears. One senior administration official, speaking to The Washington Post, called the forcible relocation plan “the stupidest idea I have ever heard.” But as with the president’s immigration rhetoric, policy particulars hardly seem the point. What stands out, instead, is the invention of a new scapegoat, along with a new way to rail against the “elite” liberal cities who also give sanctuary to the undocumented.

Trump has already tried to link homeless people and immigrants. While on a flight to San Francisco this month, he told reporters that the homeless “came from other countries and they moved to Los Angeles or they moved to San Francisco because of the prestige of the city, and all of a sudden they have tents.” If he didn’t act, he said, cities would “destroy themselves.”

As with immigration, homelessness is a genuine humanitarian issue: real people facing real suffering. In 2018, more than half a million people experienced homelessness on an average night, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates. Nationwide, millions of people are living one paycheck away from such a crisis—and in some cities in California, with which Trump is uniquely fixated, between ten and 13 percent of homeless people are employed. But when Trump speaks of a homelessness “crisis,” he refers not to the conditions that create homelessness, like sub-living wages or the lack of affordable housing, nor to the experience of homelessness. He focuses, instead, on the harm homelessness allegedly causes others—him, his supporters, housed people who are confronted with homeless people’s existence.

Every sign points to this administration regarding homeless people, not homelessness, as the problem. During Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s visit to San Francisco last week, he inspired at least one member of his own staff to walk out on their meeting, by disparaging transgender women seeking shelter as “big, hairy men,” whom he said single-sex shelters should have the power to turn away. Later, Trump jetted into the state to raise money and throw his weight around. Upon leaving, he said the Environmental Protection Agency should fine San Francisco, alleging homeless people there caused “tremendous pollution.”

Aside from slurs and vague threats—“We’re not rounding up anyone or anything yet,” an unnamed administration official told The Washington Post—it’s still unclear what action this administration intends to take. The few plans they have floated are far from specific or sophisticated. A White House report issued this month by the Council of Economic Advisors, claims, without credible evidence, that homelessness results from a combination of permissiveness and personal failing, and pushes a punitive response. Housing organizations have already dismantled the report and the recommendations it floated, like rolling back rent control and building codes—such measures are too expensive for developers who would otherwise build more housing, the report laments—and ending “the tolerability of sleeping on the streets” through increased policing.

Eliminating housing vouchers and instituting work-or-leave requirements for people in subsidized housing, as the Trump administration has already proposed, helps drive the homelessness crisis. But then, the same was true for the administration’s actions to address the immigration “crisis” at the country’s southern border. With its “Remain In Mexico” policies, the Trump administration has pushed 45,000 immigrants into danger, requiring them to stay in border cities as they pursue their asylum claims in intentionally overburdened tent courts. Far from solving crises like these, this administration fuels them.

Trump’s dehumanizing rhetoric lands in communities already hostile to homeless people. A few weeks before Trump’s visit to Los Angeles, two men intentionally set a fire at a homeless camp, according to investigators, targeting the community living there. “Violence against those experiencing homelessness is emboldened by toxic language at all levels in our city,” said a local homeless advocacy group when the men were arrested. “We call on our elected leaders to put an end to this fatal rhetoric before it claims more lives.” That was just days before the first reports of Trump’s rumored plans to raze Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

When Trump visited Los Angeles last week, Mayor Eric Garcetti rejected the White House homelessness report. “If the president really cares about solving this crisis,” said Garcetti, “he wouldn’t be talking about criminalization over housing.” But during that visit, the Los Angeles City Council voted to join a legal challenge meant to overturn a critical federal appeals court decision, which had ruled laws against sitting or lying on the sidewalk unconstitutional. This week, the council debated a new ordinance barring homeless camps from “sensitive areas”—anywhere within 500 feet of a school, for example. “Now, I don’t want to criminalize the homeless—” one city councilmember began his comments, before someone shouted, “Yes you do!”

The Trump administration’s calls for police crackdowns may find a welcome in other cities, too. The White House report singles out Boston and New York, where in recent weeks officials have expanded the use of police to round up or push out the homeless. In August, police in Boston raided homeless encampments, tossing people’s belongings—including medical supplies and wheelchairs—into garbage trucks, where they were crushed. Then they arrested some of those living there. Earlier this month, after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo complained that homeless people were responsible for “intolerable conditions” in the city’s subways, the Metropolitan Transit Authority said they would hire 500 new transit police officers.

Though he takes his own rough advantage of them, what are now accepted as “crises” in immigration and homelessness predate Trump. Previous administrations, particularly under Obama, have set the stage for Trump by vastly expanding the immigration detention system. As for homelessness and the housing crisis, scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, “is it a crisis if it’s been in this state for the last hundred years? I don’t think it’s a crisis. I think this is housing under capitalism. It’s insecure, it’s unstable, it’s every person for themselves.”

There is no reason to take such plans as have been floated through various unnamed administration officials seriously as real solutions to anything—especially while the danger posed by scapegoating is quite real. If an actual Trump anti-homeless policy or crackdown plan were to materialize, it would be worth scrutinizing. But in the meantime, these useful crises provide Trump with a stage and set directions: build the wall, raze Skid Row. In turn, he provides his supporters with a geographic focus for their rage, a brutally concrete form of politics allowing them to treat the forced removal of human beings like some humane solution. The script is the same one used with immigration: They don’t belong. They aren’t us. “Lock them up.”