Street papers respond to President Trump’s homelessness comments

Last week, US President Donald Trump had some things to say about homelessness, perhaps the first time he had spoken prominently on the issue.

“You know, I had a situation when I first became president,” he said in an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson while attending the G20 summit in Osaka. “We had certain areas of Washington, D.C., where that was starting to happen, and I ended it very quickly. I said you can’t do that. When we have leaders of the world coming in to see the President of the United States and they’re riding down the highway, they can’t be looking at that. I really believe that it hurts our country. They can’t be looking at scenes like you see in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We’re looking at it very seriously. We may intercede.”

Trump and Carlson’s conversation turned to referring to “filth”, calling the visibility of homelessness “inappropriate”, and suggestions that “the people living there [are] living in hell…perhaps they like living that way.” Bizarrely, he also claimed that homelessness had only “started two years ago”, and that he had, effectively, put an end to it – a boast since debunked.

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign stop at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. [Courtesy of Matt A.J./Flickr/Creative Commons]

Inevitably, Trump’s seemingly out of nowhere comments on homelessness, and the tone he took when referring to it, drew significant ire from members of the street paper network.

Kaia Sand, executive director of Portland street paper Street Roots, and Brian Carome, executive director of Washington, D.C.’s very own Street Sense, were moved to write op-eds on the matter.

“Trump’s comment that world leaders ‘can’t see that’ brings out, too, a not uncommon refrain about the exposure of poverty as an eyesore,” writes Sand. “But yes, they can – and should – see the truth. The truth is that people are really, really poor in wealthy U.S. cities. And developers like Donald Trump that drive up the price of real estate are part of that truth.

“While Trump’s comments about ‘interceding’ are ominous, his sentiments are uncomfortably mainstream. The Oregon Department of Transportation ‘intercedes’ by rolling boulders under overpasses to block unhoused people from taking shelter in the rain.”

Sand also chastised Trump’s assertion that the federal government is “not very equipped…to be doing that kind of work [solving homelessness]”, writing plainly: “No. It’s just the opposite.

“Despite all the work that local and state governments do to address homelessness, when the federal government support is lacking, the chasm is overwhelming.”

On the other side of the country, Carome wrote: “At Street Sense, we do not generally spend our limited capacity trying to verify or refute the many factually-disconnected statements that come out of the mouth of US President Donald Trump. We did, however, take note of his comments [on homelessness] with a degree of alarm and horror because he was perhaps talking about some of our newsroom colleagues and others we care about and love.

“I wanted to believe that the President was talking about litter, waste debris on the streets. We can all agree that we should be cleaning up the trash. Right? Unless of course you consider some human beings to be trash. That is a different case altogether.”

Despite wanting to give Trump “the benefit of the doubt”, and urging him to “to clarify his statements to assure us that he believes in the inalienable dignity and worth of every human being whether or not they are as well-housed and cared for by the taxpayers as he and his family”, Carome was emphatic. “Fact: homelessness in its current chronic form started decades ago. Fact: in a January 2019 one-night count, census takers counted 6,521 people experiencing homelessness in the District of Columbia. Fact: despite their housing condition, persons who are homeless are human.”

Portland homeless camp [Photo by Emily Green]

While it’s clear that individuals within the street paper community believe Trump is unable to speak on the issue of homelessness in American cities with authority, those definitely who can are people with lived experience of homelessness themselves.

Two such individuals picked apart Trump’s deluge on the subject.

Reginald Black, an artist and Street Sense vendor, who also serves as a consumer representative on the Washington, D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness, wrote: “The District of Columbia is a place where the layman cannot afford housing. Communities have been battling social issues like homelessness since the 1980s, and it is wrong to think that an average of about 40 deaths a year due to homelessness — in D.C. alone — started a few weeks ago.

“As for the president’s claim that there were ‘certain areas of Washington, D.C. where that was starting to happen, and I ended it very quickly’ – no one can take credit for the community’s work. Homelessness is not yet ended in the nation’s capital. We have a lot of work to do.”

Aida Peery, also an artist and Street Sense vendor, as well as an award-winning writer, added: “Trump has done nothing for the local homeless community since he took office more than two years ago. He can’t take credit from the Obama administration, which crafted the country’s first comprehensive strategy for ending homelessness.

“Trump’s Hotel had a lot of people that were homeless near the building.  But, Trump didn’t take care of the problem of homelessness around the building. What he did was to have police make sure that homeless people weren’t sleeping on nearby benches.”