Trump’s top homelessness official has a controversial past in Utah

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Robert Marbut talks during a Pioneer Park Coalition meeting at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City, Thursday, May 14, 2015. Marbut, the new federal homelessness czar, is a proponent of a controversial approach to homelessness that purportedly encourages a campus-type approach for homelessness and tough enforcement outside of that of anti-panhandling and loitering laws. Homeless advocates like the Crossroads Urban Center contend the approach is "dehumanizing" and "bullying."

Like the president himself, Donald Trump’s new top homelessness official has proved a polarizing figure, earning both ardent supporters and passionate detractors nationwide and in Utah, where he once worked as a consultant with the Pioneer Park Coalition.

Robert Marbut’s backers locally see him as a “smart, smart guy” who has improved the lives of millions of people during a career devoted to addressing homelessness “in a way that seeks to alleviate rather than perpetuate” the community’s struggles, as the coalition put it in a newsletter last month.

But several homeless service providers in the state see Marbut differently. And they worry he will use his newfound influence within the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness to push a harmful agenda rooted in some of his more controversial ideas.

“He’s made a number of inflammatory statements, like that churches and others shouldn’t be allowed to feed poor people in public, for example,” said Glenn Bailey, executive director of the Crossroads Urban Center. “And his philosophy on homelessness seems to be to kind of incarcerate folks in large campus settings that are away from everyone else in the city and isolate people, which I also don’t really think is the appropriate response.”

Perhaps most alarmingly, Bailey said, is Marbut’s opposition to the “housing first” model for addressing homelessness that’s embraced in Salt Lake City and several other municipalities, in which service providers prioritize putting a roof over people’s heads before helping them address other problems they may be facing, like mental health and addiction.

“Housing first is the only thing I’ve ever actually seen that really works,” Bailey said.

Marbut first entered the homelessness arena as a volunteer in church youth group and deepened his work on the issue later during a four-year stint on the San Antonio City Council in Texas. After that, he began traveling the country as a consultant in cities looking to tackle homelessness.

In a recent phone interview, he told The Salt Lake Tribune that his views have been misconstrued and are rooted in data and a desire to get people into “transformational” services that will help them move off the streets for good.

That’s why Marbut said he doesn’t believe in providing food and clothing anywhere but in shelters, arguing that those services can enable people and keep them from accessing dedicated case management.

“I’ve never said, ‘Don’t feed ever, ever, ever,’” Marbut said. “What I say is take your feeding services and change the location and put it with mental health and behavioral health and medical and dental and the job training and the education and work together as a collective.”

When it comes to “housing first,” Marbut agrees the approach can work for specific groups, like women and veterans, but doesn’t believe it serves all people experiencing homelessness equally.

“When somebody says, ‘I have one antibiotic and I’m going to treat a heart attack, cancer and pneumonia with one treatment,’ that just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “And housing first truly is the equivalent. I mean, it really is. If you just focus on a roof only and don’t focus on the treatment and recovery that lost you a house in the first place, it’s not even a metaphor. It’s almost exactly the same.”

Marbut was confirmed last month to his post on the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates with 19 federal departments and agencies and works with states and the private sector to address homelessness nationwide. And while he won’t have much control over resources, he will have the opportunity to influence the White House’s strategy on the issues.

One of the changes he’ll be pushing for, he said, is more empowerment of local decision-making on addressing their unsheltered populations.

“What you need in Salt Lake City is very different than what L.A. needs,” he said. “And so one of our views that we’re going to try to start talking a lot about is the need to allow local communities to design systems that treat your local, unique needs rather than a one-size, cookie-cutter approach that may or may not be successful.”

‘He knows the players’

Throughout his dozens of trips to Salt Lake City in the lead-up to Operation Rio Grande and the transition to a new system for delivering homeless services, Marbut advocated for the adoption of a campus-style homeless shelter model, where all services are concentrated in one location with ready access to health care, counseling, job training and other resources.

That’s similar to a facility he supervised the creation of in San Antonio called Haven for Hope, a 22-acre shelter that provides centralized services to about 1,700 people a day and that state leaders have credited with reducing homelessness.

Others have been critical of some elements of the facility’s approach — particularly the requirement that some people experiencing homelessness sleep in an outdoor courtyard and earn their rights to move inside for higher quality sleeping arrangements and more privacy through good behavior.

During one of Marbut’s visits to Salt Lake City in 2015, the Crossroads Urban Center and The Legacy Initiative took part in a “Kindness Protest” outside a town-hall meeting where he was speaking in an effort to raise their opposition to his ideas around providing food and clothing for homeless people and his campus-style site proposal.

Salt Lake City and state leaders ultimately decided to go a different way. They built a dispersed center system with three new resource centers — two in Salt Lake City and one in South Salt Lake — that offer a full suite of services and case management and a move away from the old emergency “warehousing” model, in which clients were required to vacate each morning and then wait in line to get a bed for the night.

Marbut said he’s visited the three new centers multiple times and believes the model can be successful, though he said it’s not as cost-effective as a mall approach.

“It’s going to be more expensive to operate a scattered site, but you can still make it work well” with a good information management and case management system and high levels of coordination between service providers, he said.

Still, Marbut had at least one criticism of the new system: the continued presence of homeless resources, particularly those provided by Catholic Community Services, in the Rio Grande neighborhood.

“I’ve always had a concern that that needed to be relocated and aligned with the services” in the new resource centers, he said, raising concerns that the continued operation of the Weigand Center in the area could keep people experiencing homelessness from accessing the new resource centers. Catholic Community Services also operates one of those shelters.

Matthew Melville, Catholic Community Services’ homeless services director, said he has some “philosophical” disagreements with Marbut when it comes to serving people experiencing homelessness. Not all people want to go into a overnight shelter, he said, but they should still be able to access services at a day center like Weigand.

The Weigand Center is also working on opening a new hands-on kitchen job training program that Melville said could be a “transformational” service that will help move people off the streets in the way Marbut espouses.

“Maybe he doesn’t know that part of it; not sure that he would care about that,” Melville said.

“I think he would still try to push an agenda that we should be out of the neighborhood,” he added, noting Marbut’s association with the Pioneer Park Coalition, a group of developers, business owners and residents who want homeless resources to move out of the Rio Grande neighborhood.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Matthew Melville, homeless services director at Catholic Community Services talks about changes that have already been made after seeking input from the homeless community at the Weigand Center and its new homeless resource center in Salt Lake City.

A member of the Pioneer Park Coalition board was in Washington, D.C., when Marbut was confirmed last month, and “he assured us that he will provide as much assistance to Utah and the coalition as he can,” the organization wrote in its newsletter.

Scott Howell, a member of the group’s board of directors, told The Tribune that Marbut was a “good reinforcement” during conversations about the new homeless resource center system. And while he praised the direction of the new services, he said the mission “hasn’t been accomplished at all” and believes Marbut could help the state in the future.

“We want to keep the momentum moving and I think it’s really important that we have someone, I mean, what a good thing for us that he knows Utah,” Howell said. “He’s been here, he’s seen it and toured all the new shelters. He knows the players. It’s just nice to have that.”

Bailey, however, believes most of Marbut’s and the Trump administration’s focus will be on California after the president has criticized the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas’ responses to homelessness and threatened to crack down on street encampments there.

“Probably he’ll talk a lot about California and what the Trump administration thinks should be done to reduce street homelessness in California,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s going to have a huge impact on us here in Utah.”