He answers them with just as much passion.
Marbut was recently confirmed as the administration’s new homeless czar. That’s a catchy title evoking images of a former Russian leader wandering the streets after the Bolshevik revolution, so I’ll be more specific. He is the new head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, an organization that coordinates with 19 federal departments and agencies to address homelessness nationwide.
Marbut answers that by noting that Los Angeles alone saw 1,047 homeless people die on the streets in 2018, according to the L.A. County Department of Health. That’s up from 536 in 2013.
“The people attacking me are promoting a system where the numbers are off the charts,” he told me by phone the other day. “That’s working? We’ve got a humanitarian crisis going on.”
That humanitarian crisis has been prevalent in Salt Lake City, as well. Two years ago, the area around the old shelter on Rio Grande Street was the scene of constant crime, including drug deals, violence and murder. Back then, nearby business owners spoke to me about daily distresses that were threatening to drive them out of business.
State leaders stepped in, formed a task force that included cities, service providers and other stakeholders, stepped up patrols and, eventually, replaced the old shelter with three new ones scattered across the valley. These are gender-specific “resource centers” — two of them containing 200 beds and one with 300, built at a cost of $63 million.
In January of 2017, Marbut sat in my office and told me Utah’s scattered shelter plan was “more messed up than any other community I’ve seen except for one.” He wouldn’t tell me which one that was.
At the time, Marbut was an author and consultant on issues related to homelessness; a former city councilman in San Antonio and the founding president of that city’s shelter, known as the Haven for Hope. He said Utah should instead be building a single central homeless shelter away from the urban core. Men, women and families could be separated, but the three sections could be expanded or contracted as needed to accommodate demand. Also, a central facility would be cheaper because of economies of scale. Instead of providing food services at three different places, for example, it would provide meals at only one location.
Today, he has a different, more pragmatic opinion on Utah’s plan.
“A central site would have been more cost effective,” he said. “But if you go decentralized, you can still make it work. On the whole, it (the new Wasatch Front solution) is much, much better than what you had before.”
It’s hard to argue with that. The good news, he said, is that everyone here seems to be “pulling in the same direction.”
Marbut isn’t just speaking as a casual observer. For a while, he said, he was visiting the Salt Lake area once every three or four weeks. He has toured the new resource centers and met with advocates and politicians.
He wishes the other, privately owned homeless programs would leave the old Rio Grande neighborhood and align themselves with the new resource centers. Other than that, he’s bullish on what’s happening here.
It will be interesting to see whether the rest of the nation ever becomes bullish on him.
Marbut said it is unfair to characterize him as heartless or opposed to feeding the homeless. People, he said, enjoy taking his words out of context.
“I want to have come-as-you-are features in any homeless system. People should get care and feeding no matter their circumstances.”
Overall, however, he wants “to promote a movement to self-reliance.” That can mean demonstrating an ability to survive in society before being given a home. Too many “housing first” solutions don’t come with the resources needed to help the homeless survive, with the result being that they end up losing their homes again, he said.
And Marbut would love for agencies to report on how many of their homeless clients end up transitioning into market-based housing. “That’s a figure that never gets measured,” he said, invoking the adage that what gets measured, gets managed.
He also is critical of local governments for passing restrictive zoning laws that exacerbate supply and demand curves and make housing too expensive.
“I’m very hopeful because I spent 15 years in the trenches, giving me a realistic view of what’s going on,” he said.
His approach sounds like something that would get a lot of Utahns to nod their heads in support, especially the part about teaching self-reliance. Whether it plays well nationally, especially at a time of deep political divisions, is another matter.