President-elect Donald Trump has made his agenda quite clear on many issues. He has promised to crack down on immigration and ban “sanctuary cities,” end the Affordable Care Act, roll back civil rights law, renounce the Paris Agreement on climate change, and suspend immigration from Syria, to name just a few of the policies he has outlined in his plan for the first 100 days of his presidency.
One issue on which Trump has said little to nothing is homelessness. Perhaps because the homeless aren’t exactly a coveted constituency, perhaps because the issue lacks the headline-grabbing force of proposals like the border wall or a ban on Muslim immigration, homeless advocates, service providers, and housing agencies have been left largely in the dark about how Trump’s policies will impact them. They know, of course, that a President bent on dismantling the social safety net and “devolving” much federal spending to the states won’t be good for the nation’s most vulnerable, and least powerful, residents, but for now they can only speculate about just how damaging a Trump presidency will be. To get a sense of how local homeless providers and advocates are anticipating Trump’s policies will impact them, I talked to four representatives of agencies that provide housing and services, and one advocate for the homeless, in the Seattle area. Here’s what they had to say.
Daniel Malone, executive director, Downtown Emergency Service Center
We have no idea, is the bottom line. I think there’s a lot of pants-shitting and dejection overall. Our organization relies heavily on federal funding. We get a lot of Medicaid money through a whole complicated stew [of funding sources]. The whole Obamacare repeal, if it’s true repeal and does kick off the 20 million people who got on Medicaid through the expansion, that does impact some of our clients who were eligible for Medicaid through disability. A lot of times [before the Affordable Care Act expanded access to Medicaid], they wouldn’t participate in the process, because they had to go through evaluations and they didn’t want to do that. We’ve been able to get mental health care services through the expansion.
We build a lot of affordable housing with the federal low-income tax credit. That’s the one I’d be most confident about saving, because it’s politically popular, it involves the private market, and it involves rich people making investments and making money off the deal.
We get a lot of [Department of Housing and Urban Development] money. It almost all flows through the city of Seattle or King County. We have to raise a lot of private money, but it’s a small portion of our budget–a little over a million dollars out of about $40 million is private money. If we had millions of dollars in cuts from HUD or other sources, the prospect of raising that from private funding is totally grim, even if we were to become a cause celebre.
Sharon Lee, executive director, Low-Income Housing Institute
We are worried about the tax reforms that might be put in place. If there is serious tax reform, where they’re going to cut the corporate tax, that will impact the low-income housing tax credit program, because Fortune 500 companies will have less interest in investing in low-income housing if the rate gets cut. Just about every new building we’re building has relied on the housing tax credit program, so that would be a significant. But then again, there’s the other version, which is: [Trump]’s a developer. He knows about real estate, and he knows that a lot of corporations have gained a lot from the tax credit program. Maybe it’s one program that he would want to support. We just don’t know.
The other thing that’s very concerning is if the president puts forward a budget that doesn’t have a cap on military spending, but then he wants a corresponding decrease in other spending, that’s going to be where housing, human services, and education will all get cut. If there continue to be cuts to the HUD budget, the concern for people relying on rental subsidies like housing vouchers is that not only would the program not grow, but that existing people would be cut off Section 8 [a program that provides rent vouchers for low-income people and pays for some housing construction], and that would be most problematic. There’s for-profit and nonprofit organizations that build housing, and only way it’s affordable is that they all have Section 8 subsidies, so that the seniors or families or homeless people can pay 30 percent of their income. We have people paying $100 or $200 for rent because that’s a third of their income. Without Section 8, they would have to pay the full cost, which they can’t afford.
“The reality is, we’re dealing with folks with dementia or severe trauma or huge medical issues who can’t just pull themselves up by their bootstraps without a little help.”
The other thing that’s a major new initiative that we’re concerned about is the housing trust fund, and that is being funded through the profits of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac [the agencies that . My concern is that if they decide Fannie and Freddie should be privatized, that would take away a funding source for housing. Trust fund housing is terrific because it is the only program that is funding new housing for low-income families. Every other funding program has been devastated.
Paul Lambros, executive director, Plymouth Housing Group
We’re waiting to see who the HUD secretary is going to be. It’s not only about the amount of funding for Section 8, but all the rules that we’ve tried to forward for fair housing. Section 8 has been vital to us. Then there’s the question of what’s going to happen with McKinney funding and all the service money we get through McKinney. [McKinney-Vento homeless assistance grants are the primary source of federal funding for people experiencing homelessness.] A lot of the dollars that we all rely on are pass-through federal dollars [federal funds distributed by state and local governments], so we have to wait and see
Janet Pope, executive director, Compass Housing Alliance
Mayor Murray and [King County Executive] Dow Constantine were very clear that part of declaring the state of emergency [on homelessness] was to try to get national attention, [to say] “We can’t do it on our own, we’re really suffering, and we need your help.” Seattle has the resources to address that. Just as we’re hearing that folks are starting to step up to give to refugee organizations or Planned Parenthood or other organizations, I hope people will start giving to homelessness organizations. We need to start thinking about trying to address the problem on our own.
I think in the area of homelessness, folks are frustrated now. There’s much more of an activism and a sense of, “This can’t happen in our community.” How can we expand that sense of wanting to do more and be involved, and not being just stuck in our daily grind.
[I’m worried about] the elimination of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is something that was talked about during the campaign that would change the landscape completely. There’s a general bias [in the new administration] that people can just pull people themselves up by their bootstraps. I think that was reflected a lot in this administration too, and the reality is, we’re dealing with folks with dementia or severe trauma or huge medical issues who can’t just pull themselves up by their bootstraps without a little help. For the businessmen and folks who have been successful, it’s very hard to walk in the shoes of these people.
Then there’s just the safety of our staff and our clients, who are very diverse. We do serve some undocumented folks. Seattle has one of the largest populations of Somali refugees and a lot of people with language barriers. Everybody’s scared about what’s going to happen to our people—to our staff and to our clients.
Alison Eisinger, executive director, Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness
I think, in general, what we’re looking at with this administration really does go beyond any kind of Democrat or Republican labels. It goes to the heart of the question, what is government’s function? And I think that what we are concerned about—those of us who know that the federal government is the most important source of significant investments [in housing]—what we are concerned about is two things. One is that the people who will be making decisions, and I mean mot only administration appointees in key department roles, but the people who are controlling both houses of Congress are people who believe that there is not an appropriate role for government to play in ensuring that we don’t leave a million people homeless every day.
Let’s start with the idea of block-granting Medicaid. That is not only a godawful idea, but every one knows that block-granting is essentially a way to ultimately reduce the amount of money that goes to the states to do their work.
The unpredictability [of Trump] is part of the concern, because in fact we do not know. But based on statements that Trump the candidate has made, and based on the kinds of people who seems likely to be advising him for the long haul, I think what we can expect to see is a less fair tax system, which means fewer resources, and from the point of view of homelessness and health care, the federal government is the biggest player. The allocations in the federal budget simply dwarf anything that the city, county, or state governments are able to invest, so that’s why when Mayor Murray says we the the state and federal governments to do their part, we agree, and that’s why it’s very, very worrying when there’s a possibility that Health and Human Services and HUD will be not just run by people who don’t necessarily see the government as having an important role to play but will, as agencies, have greatly reduced budgets. Because of [federal budget] sequestration, we lost hundreds of section 8 vouchers in Washington State, so we are still behind. We’re at a point where we need increased federal resources to support people who are working to pay a reasonable proportion of their income in rent, and instead what we are anticipating is drastic reductions in those resources.
And of course, I have had countless conversations just over the last 10 days with people who are concerned about their staff and the people they serve, who are immigrants and people of color, and it is a reality that there is cause to be worried about the safety, wellbeing and status of people regardless of whether or not they are in the country legally. My privilege is to say, “Let’s inform ourselves, let’s prepare, and let’s get ready to fight.” But I understand that there are people who are panicked, and I have deep sympathy for those concerns. Think about children who are homeless and in our public schools. There are tons of reasons why those parents or guardians might be reluctant to go to the school counselor and say, “I’m homeless. I need help.” Those concerns are likely to be magnified, because this is the reality we live in. We may have elected officials who hang tough, but let’s not kid ourselves—we also have people in the community who have demonstrated their willingness to engage in threatening and harassing and bigoted behavior. That’s really where the whole country is.