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Trump officials visit LA to take stock of homelessness crisis

Benjamin Oreskes, Dakota Smith, Emily Alpert Reyes and James Queally, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Intensifying the focus on California and its homelessness crisis, at least a dozen Trump administration officials are in Los Angeles on a mission to better understand what's playing out in the city and state on the issue.

The visit comes after relentless criticism by President Donald Trump of places like Los Angeles and San Francisco for the large numbers of people who live in squalid conditions on the street.

The group includes officials from the White House, Department of Housing and Urban Development and Domestic Policy Council and is led by Ben Hobbs, Trump's special assistant for domestic policy. They met with members of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti's staff and toured skid row downtown, according to sources involved in the meetings.

The Washington Post, citing four unnamed government officials, reported Tuesday that the president has called for a "crackdown" on the problem in the state. The story said officials are considering how to move people living on the streets into government facilities. They have also considered clearing homeless encampments as well.

In July, Trump suggested that homelessness in West Coast cities -- places run by the "liberal establishment" -- was a problem that has emerged in the last two years. He didn't offer any specific proposals to remedy the crisis, but he did speak at length about how homelessness was ruining cities.

"You take a look at what's going on with San Francisco, it's terrible. So we're looking at it very seriously. We may intercede. We may do something to get that whole thing cleaned up. It's inappropriate," Trump told Fox News.

The White House declined to say whether the federal government was considering such an idea. Deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement that the president wanted his team to be on the ground so that he can begin to develop a plan to address this "tragedy."

"Like many Americans, the president has taken notice of the homelessness crisis, particularly in cities and states where the liberal policies of overregulation, excessive taxation, and poor public service delivery are combining to dramatically increase poverty and public health risks," Deere said.

Garcetti's spokesman declined to comment on the Post report.

But in a statement, the spokesman, Alex Comisar, said: "Our office learned very recently of the administration's plans to visit L.A. to learn more about our strategies for responding to the homelessness crisis. We welcome them and look forward to showing them our work to confront this humanitarian emergency."

Comisar confirmed that Garcetti staffers took the delegation to the city's Unified Homelessness Response Center downtown. There were no meetings at City Hall with the delegation and no meetings with Garcetti himself, Comisar added.

Reacting to the Post's report, some local government officials were outraged by the idea that federal authorities might destroy existing encampments. The story notes that there is no final plan in place and that the details are subject to change.

"His freaking administration is actually causing homelessness, throwing immigrant families out of housing, cutting health care, contributing to worsening income inequality," City Councilman Mike Bonin said in a statement.

At an event in Beverly Hills hosted by the Politico website on Monday, a Garcetti official explained that the mayor welcomed this dialogue with the administration on a pressing issue. Local officials have consistently said they need more federal assistance to help get their arms around the mushrooming crisis.

 

"They don't know the work that we're doing," said Breelyn Pete, chief of state and federal affairs for Garcetti.

"They're just not thoughtful -- and, quite frankly, not smart enough to know what we're doing." She added: "I hope that doesn't get me in trouble."

This year's count put the number of homeless people just shy of 59,000 countywide -- a 12% increase from last year. Within the city of Los Angeles, the number soared to more than 36,000, a 16% increase.

Branimir Kvartuc, a spokesman for L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino, said the federal delegation also visited the Jordan Downs housing project. Buscaino senior adviser Alison Becker was among the city staffers who accompanied federal officials at Jordan Downs.

"They were very impressed with the development," Kvartuc said. "These units no longer look like public housing."

Kvartuc said that the federal officials touring the Watts site included representatives of the departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development and Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Domestic Policy Council.

In recent weeks, members of the White House's Domestic Policy Council have been in contact with the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing rank-and-file police officers, to better understand "conditions on the ground" on skid row and in other areas with large homeless populations, according to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the situation.

Discussions also focused on the LAPD's efforts to combat the issue and challenges faced by law enforcement, including filthy conditions that may have caused city employees and officers to become ill.

(Times staff writer Gale Holland contributed to this report.)

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