AUSTIN (KXAN) — The new leader of the federal office which coordinates America’s response to homelessness was in Austin Thursday.

In December, President Donald Trump’s administration named Robert Marbut, Ph.D. as the executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) which works with 19 different federal agencies on addressing homelessness.

About a month into his new job, Marbut spoke on a panel for the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative thinktank in Austin.

The panel was part of TPPF’s Policy Orientation program.

Marbut is familiar with efforts to end homelessness in Texas, he was the founding president and CEO for the San Antonio homeless shelter Haven for Hope as well as a former city council member and Mayor Pro Tem in San Antonio. He also served as a White House Fellow to President George W. Bush.

“President Trump has gone days talking about [homelessness] every single day,” Marbut said Thursday, emphasizing that homelessness is a high-priority issue for the president. “He sees the humanitarian crisis that’s going on.” 

On the panel Thursday, Marbut talked at a length about what he sees as the value of requiring that homeless individuals accessing services receive recovery and treatment as well.

“Once you’re in the program, whatever the program looks like,” Marbut said. “You have to have treatment recovery that’s customized for you.

“And if you’re not doing it, it has to either be incentivized or required,” he continued. “Whatever it is, it has to be customized to your issue that has catalyzed your event — whatever you lost your house to in the first place.”

Robert Marbut, the Executive Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness speaks at a Texas Public Policy Foundation panel on January 23. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Currently, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does not require treatment or recovery for people experiencing homelessness to access services or housing.

So KXAN asked Marbut, is that something he sees the federal government working towards in the future: requiring more treatment to get services?

“Literally we’re just engaging this now,” Marbut said. “We have to talk to our congressional partners on this and walk through the data, walk through why it’s so important to have recovery services and treatment services and couple them together, and so we are starting that activity now.”

The kinds of changes Marbut is interested in making would require authorization from Congress, he said.

A different approach to “housing first”

The policy the federal government has encouraged in addressing homelessness for the past few years is known as “housing first” which aims to get people experiencing homelessness housed quickly without preconditions and barriers to entry, like sobriety, treatment, or service participation.

Marbut’s views reflect a departure from policies on homelessness that are centered around “housing first.”

KXAN asked Marbut if he believes the U.S. should be moving away from an approach that is squarely focused on housing first.

He replied, “what the President and the administration wants to do is what we call trauma-informed treatment and trauma-informed recovery and you tie it with affordable housing and that gives you housing stability.”

“I used to think housing first was just a waste of money, I used to think that,” Marbut said, noting that he now thinks there are cases where housing first can be useful.

But he clarified, “housing first is a tool in the toolbox, it’s not a one-size-fits-all use for everybody tool, and that’s what it’s become.”

Marbut’s approach differs from that of his predecessor, Matthew Doherty, who was appointed in 2015 during President Obama’s administration and was reported to have been pushed out of the role in November 2019.

Doherty was quoted in 2019 encouraging people to, “resist bogus arguments that a focus on Housing First imposes a one-size-fits-all solution on people or programs.”

“We can speak the real truth that Housing First approaches are the opposite of one-size-fits-all and help ensure that we don’t leave anyone behind,” Doherty said.

At the same event where Doherty spoke in 2019, HUD Secretary Ben Carson said, “I like to follow the evidence and the evidence then and now supports much of the work that has been done here and supports housing first.”

“The fact of the matter is, it costs a lot less to house someone than to leave someone on the streets,” Carson said that time.

The federal precedent of housing first policy is now embedded in the systems homeless service providers use to do their work.

The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). (KXAN Photo/Yoojin Cho)

Greg McCormack, the executive director of Front Steps who operates Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless explained that “in order to reapply for HUD permanent supportive housing funding, we and all of the entities in Austin are required to declare and verify that we follow the housing first model and that we don’t have barriers to entry like requiring sobriety.”

Changing the federal policy conversation

At the panel Thursday, Marbut presented attendees with data from HUD that he said had never been seen before. The data tracks the growing number of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. alongside what services these individuals were getting.

Marbut believes the data shows simply increasing funding and permanent supportive housing beds doesn’t result in more people exiting homelessness.

Data presented by USICH Director Robert Marbut at a Texas Public Policy Foundation Panel on January 23. Marbut said this data had not been presented publicly before prior to this panel.

In a statement from December 2019, Marbut summarized his concern with previous approaches by the federal government: “We need to be honest with ourselves, much of what we have been doing is not working. If it were working, the number of individuals and families experiencing homelessness would be dropping.”

Robert Marbut, Ph.D., director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness speaks at a panel at Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Policy Orientation. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

In the past six weeks, Marbut said the president has been moving the conversation forward in shifting from the way the housing first approach had been carried out in the past.

“That’s been what’s been so great about this president and this administration is we’re gonna start changing that,” Marbut said, acknowledging not everyone agrees with him. “And we know we’re over the target because we’re getting shot at.”

Homelessness in Austin

At the event in Austin Thursday, it was not lost on Marbut or the attendees that the city they were meeting in has been in the spotlight for its efforts to address homelessness over the past year.

People experiencing homelessness bundle up as they wait in front of Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

“No recovery occurs in a jail cell floor,” Marbut said on the panel.

“Likewise, the complete opposite, no recovery occurs in that boulevard park a quarter of a mile away,” he added, referring to the area of downtown Austin where many people experiencing homelessness are visible on the streets. 

In another comment, he drew parallels between the Texas capital and California cities, saying, “Austin has become a new Berkeley to be real honest about it.”

Marbut said in an interview with KXAN that when it comes to people experiencing homelessness, “the numbers in Austin are skyrocketing.”

Eric Samuels, President of the Texas Homeless Network challenged Marbut’s assertion, saying, “looking at the data, characterizing the population as skyrocketing is patently untrue.”

Pointing to the total number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin, Samuels said, “homelessness in Austin increased by less than 5 percent from 2018 to 2019. Many other communities across the country saw a much higher percentage increases.”

Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition’s Point in Time Count numbers of homeless individuals from 2010-2019. ECHO Graphic.

Over the past 10 years, the total number of people experiencing homelessness during Austin’s Point in Time Count has fluctuated between 1,832 and 2,362. The number of un-sheltered individuals has fluctuated over that time period between 448 to 1,086, with the highest number of unsheltered homeless being recorded in the 2019 count. 

When it comes to homelessness in Texas, it’s clear that Austin has Marbut’s focus.

“I sometimes say to people, look out your window, is it better or worse? And most people in Austin are saying its much worse,” Marbut told KXAN.

“This is where the biggest problem in Texas is Austin right now,” he continued. “And we are not picking on anybody, we are looking at everybody and saying, ‘What we know works is when you have required or incentivized services.'”

Samuels agrees that Austin is the city in Texas gaining the most attention related to homelessness. However, he noted, “I don’t agree that homelessness in Austin is far worse than it is in other places. “

Homeless encampments beneath TX-290 at Packsaddle Pass in South Austin. KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard.

Samuels noted that homeless is more visible in Austin than in other places in Texas, and particularly in 2019 as the city repealed then partially reinstated bans on camping, sitting and lying down in public. He said, however, “that certainly doesn’t mean that [homelessness] is happening at a much higher rate. “

Samuels does agree with Marbut that it can be useful for cities to look at the example of Houston which has been able to reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness.

He also agrees that housing first is one tool in the toolbox to use in addressing homelessness, but notes, “it is a tool that can be adapted to many different types of households and individuals with many different types of needs.”

The City of Austin, in fact, is committed to a housing first approach when it comes to homelessness.

A November city memo noted, “Housing First is not housing only” and that housing first includes interventions like “diversion, shelter, rapid re-housing, and permanent supportive housing, subject to an individual’s needs and the availability of resources.”

Matt Mollica, the executive director of Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), believes, “housing first at its core is the idea that people experiencing homelessness should be driving their treatment and the care they receive and it’s actually the opposite of a one-size-fits-all.”

Counter to the requirements that Marbut has talked about, Mollica believes that people should be able to choose whether they want something like a treatment program or a job training program.

The City of Austin in partnership with ECHO launched a strategy in 2019 of purchasing motels to use as shelters and ultimately converting those spaces into permanent supportive housing.

ECHO previously explained to KXAN that the city will not require any sort of background checks for people to enter the motel shelters and will not require people to pay any money upfront. Additionally, pets will be allowed at these motel shelters and there will be no requirement for sobriety, ECHO said.

Rodeway Inn
Austin City Council approved the purchase of the Rodeway Inn which it plans to turn into a homeless shelter. (KXAN Photo)

The plan is to have space at the motel shelters for healthcare service providers like psychiatrists and substance management counselors to work with people experiencing homelessness who want help.

As KXAN explained this Austin motel-shelter model to Marbut, he replied, “that’s not enough, you have to either require it or incentivize it, if you just make it casually available it doesn’t work.”

Mollica disagrees.

“Requiring treatment for people to access homeless services to me seems like a one-size-fits-all approach that’s sort of in contrast to what he’s talking about,” Mollica said.

“What we’ve learned over the years it’s not what everyone wants to access,” Mollica said of treatment programs. 

Marbut may have more specific insight on Austin’s efforts to address homelessness in the coming days, he has plans to tour around Austin Friday and to meet with Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s office.

When KXAN asked Marbut about his thoughts on the ongoing debate between Governor Abbott and Austin Mayor Steve Adler over Austin’s homeless policies, Marbut replied, “I won’t know that ’til [Friday], ask me that [Friday] night because I am meeting with the governor’s people [Friday], so I have not followed the back and forth on that.”

On Wednesday, Marbut said he was at the U.S. Conference of Mayors where he met with Austin Mayor Steve Adler as well as mayors from places like New York City and Las Vegas.

But Marbut didn’t disclose the details of his conversation with Austin’s mayor, saying, “We had a great meeting and he sincerely wants to try and address this and we had a very thoughtful conversation and interplay on virtually all the same issues we just talked about here.”

Eric Samuels is eager for Marbut to meet with more people across Texas who are working to address homelessness.

“I know he did really good things in San Antonio,” Samuels said of Marbut.

“So I know someone like him, if he can come and talk to us and learn from us, what works to end homelessness and hopefully embrace some of those concepts I think we can hopefully achieve a lot while he is in the position,” Samuels continued.

A movement in the making

The Texas Public Policy Foundation explained that Marbut’s panel Thursday marks the start of what they intend to be a larger foray into the policy and dialogue around homelessness.

“I know that it is fashionable for conservatives to hate on the city of Austin,” said Andrew C. Brown, the director of the Center for Families and Children with TPPF as he moderated the panel that in Austin. “But for me personally, someone who lives here, when I give constructive criticism for the city, it comes from a place of love, for this town where my wife and I have chosen to raise our family.”

Pictured at a Texas Public Policy Foundation panel on homelessness are (left to right) Andrew C. Brown, Michele Steeb, Robert Marbut, and Elena Davis.

Also speaking at the panel was Elena Davis, founder and CEO of the I Am Waters Foundation and Michele Steeb, a consultant for St. John’s Program for Real Change, which offers a rehabilitative program for women experiencing homelessness in Sacramento.

Like Marbut, TPPF has been questioning the housing first policies used to address homelessness in the past.

“This is a project that’s been about a year in development at TPPF prior to this panel,” Brown explained. “And I remember one of the first times Michele [Steeb] and I sat down to actually talk about what is the low hanging fruit? What do we need to do something about right now? She brought up this idea of housing first, and I have to tell you my jaw hit the floor.”

“She brought up the idea of, ‘We have to do something about housing first because housing first is the poisonous tree that is causing all these problems,” Brown continued.

He recalled being shocked when Steeb told him that, “If you are an effective organization, and you require people you serve to do job training classes or go through addiction recovery, mental health treatment, anything, if you ask them to do anything that would help them better their situation, you are prohibited under the HUD rules from actually receiving funding.”

Austin presents an opportunity for Brown and others to make a case for changing policies related to homelessness.

As Brown noted, in Austin, “the sudden visibility of the homelessness crisis [in the city] has forced a long-overdue conversation about how to address the problem.”