Robert Marbut would prefer that you do not refer to him as a “czar.”
His official title, since December, is executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Which, he allows, is a mouthful. And if you tried to make it into one of those cool government acronyms — like NASA or SHIELD — it might wind up being pronounced, “Us-itch.”
To his fans, and he has many, Marbut might be more casually referred to as the homelessness policy guru. To his detractors, and he has many, the devil. When he came to chat with The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board the other day, he sported neither love beads nor horns.
Marbut has been riding the circuit of homeless policy for years, making friends and enemies along the way. The former were glad to see him noticed by the president and given a post where he could better turn his knowledge and expertise into action. The latter thought it made perfect sense that someone who, in their eyes, counsels being mean to the downtrodden would wind up doing a hitch with a regime whose motto is, “The cruelty is the point.”
It was not Marbut’s first visit to Salt Lake City. Even before he took up his current post he had been consulting with the Pioneer Park Coalition, a group formed to deal with the overflow of homeless people who had become indigenous to the neighborhood.
The advice he offered here and elsewhere was often extremely unpopular among advocates for the homeless and the near-homeless because he derided anything he considered a half measure.
Don’t give the homeless a warm place for the night, or a ham sandwich at noon, and say fare thee well, Marbut would argue. It doesn’t help. If anything, it sort of makes the homeless more homeless by stringing them along in their current state instead of helping them change their circumstances once and for all.
Some cities, based on their interpretation of Marbut’s advice, passed laws making it a crime to feed the homeless out on the street. Such actions were, understandably, derided as being like the signs at Yellowstone that say, “Don’t feed the bears.” But, because people aren’t bears, it is just cruel.
Marbut has also been criticized as an opponent of the now popular approach to helping the homeless, known as Housing First. That is the stunningly obvious idea that the cure for homelessness is a home. Just as World War II mud-level correspondent Ernie Pyle (no relation that I can establish) noted that the cure for trench foot is dry socks.
Housing First is based on the realization that it is both cruel and pointless to insist that a homeless person, couple or family solve all their other woes — addiction, mental illness, unemployment, medical debt — before they are entitled to have, in George Bailey’s words, a couple of decent rooms and bath.
Too often, though, in Marbut’s view, Housing First was really Housing Only. Without the suite of services that folks who have been really down will need to get even half-way up, just providing an apartment for a homeless person is like building a state-of-the-art hospital and neglecting to hire any doctors or nurses.
Which gave me the opportunity to share with him my favorite rant — which he seemed to appreciate — about how people who think we don’t need to provide health care coverage to the poor think that health care is available in hospital emergency rooms. When the truth is that health care does not happen in emergency rooms. Trauma care happens there.
Kind of like, oh, I don’t know, providing the homeless with a warm place to sleep at night and a slice of pizza the next day. It handles the immediate need, but doesn’t solve deeper problems.
My screed about health care and Marbut’s dissertation on serving the homeless have one key point in common. Somebody’s got to come up with the money to really solve problems rather than just kick them down the road.
Marbut said the three new homeless service centers in Salt Lake County are a big step forward over the old Road Home emergency shelter. What’s lacking, he said, is more space and a commitment to not only keep the facilities clean and safe but to continue to infuse them with ongoing services to move people out of homelessness and into whatever level of long-term housing they can handle.
Somebody needs to pick up the $17 million or so in debt that is left over from building the centers. Somebody needs to work it out so that the various service providers aren’t competing with one another for needed operating funds. Somebody needs to make sure that all the service providers share information about individuals and track what works and what doesn’t on a larger scale.
In that regard, Marbut is saying just what other advocates for the homeless, here and elsewhere, are saying. There can be different ideas about how to deal with the problem. But anything that is going to work is going to cost money.
Money that, so far, Utah has not been willing to provide.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has never been homeless. But he is sometimes aimless.