Homeless in Texas

Donald Trump's new, controversial homelessness czar has argued feeding homeless people enables them

Robert Marbut Jr. helped develop the Haven for Hope homeless shelter in San Antonio, which Gov. Greg Abbott praised as "probably the best template" for addressing homelessness. But aspects of Marbut's approach have been criticized as harsh and patronizing.

Robert Marbut.

A Texas consultant who devised a controversial approach to addressing homelessness in San Antonio a decade ago was tapped by President Donald Trump this month to bring his strategy to the rest of the country.

Robert Marbut Jr., the founding president of San Antonio’s homeless shelter Haven for Hope, will lead the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates with 19 federal departments and agencies to address homelessness.

But aspects of Marbut's approach to addressing homelessness have garnered blowback from housing advocates. He calls feeding homeless people on the street “enabling” them, and once while working in Florida, he went undercover as a homeless person to study them.

Responding in a tweet to the news of his appointment, Diane Yentel, CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, called Marbut’s guiding principles “paternalistic, patronizing, filled with poverty blaming/shaming.”

Gov. Greg Abbott, who has sparred with Austin leaders he accuses of being too relaxed on policies governing homeless people, didn’t respond to a request for comment. But he previously lauded the San Antonio shelter developed by Marbut, calling it “probably the best template” for addressing homelessness.

"I’m pretty controversial, because I often say, ‘Having a home is not the problem for the homeless. It’s maintaining a financial stability that allows you to maintain your homestead," Marbut told Next City in 2015.

The Texas Tribune could not reach Marbut for comment.

From 2006 to 2010, Marbut oversaw the development of the 22-acre Haven for Hope shelter that provides services to approximately 1,700 people per day. The shelter has been credited for centralizing homelessness services.

Some leaders in San Antonio praised Haven for Hope’s model, which they say helps hundreds of families in the city.

“If we didn’t have them in this city, we would be at a major loss,” San Antonio City Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda said.

She said over the years she’s noticed the shelter increase its focus on adopting rehabilitation-oriented services for homeless people.

But others were critical of Marbut’s approach.

In the "guiding principles" listed on his website, Marbut writes that homeless people who exhibit good behavior should get “privileges such as higher quality sleeping arrangements, more privacy and elective learning opportunities.”

Amy Stone, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University who worked with Marbut during Haven for Hope's development, remembered his approach as “disengaged from reality of chronically homeless individuals.”

“Almost all his approaches to chronic homelessness were behavior modification ... as if you can be motivated out of substance use by promises of a nicer bed," Stone said.

A civic giant in San Antonio, Marbut served as an aide to Mayor Henry Cisneros in the 1980s before being selected as a White House fellow during President George H.W. Bush's administration. In the 1990s, he organized the U.S. Olympic Festival in San Antonio and served two terms on the City Council before embarking on a two-decade run as a government professor at Northwest Vista College.

After Hurricane Katrina, Marbut was in charge of shelter operations for displaced victims from along the Gulf Coast.

Then, in hopes of addressing the city's homelessness problem, leaders tapped Marbut to help develop a shelter. A spokesman for Haven for Hope said the organization could not comment on past employees.

Stone said that at the time, homeless advocates found Marbut’s selection to lead Haven for Hope misguided because he didn't have much experience dealing with homelessness.

Stone added that leaders hoped to bring in someone with new ideas, but aspects of Marbut's approach were "outdated" yet presented as fresh.

In developing Haven for Hope, Marbut and other planners visited 237 homeless shelter facilities in 12 states to develop "a best practice study" before concluding a single campus with centralized services would be most helpful to San Antonio's homeless population, according to information provided by the shelter.

The shelter’s opening resulted in a decrease in visible homelessness downtown, the organization’s CEO and president, Kenny Wilson, told the Tribune this summer.

“Homelessness in downtown San Antonio has dropped about 80% since San Antonio Haven for Hope opened,” Wilson said. “We're near downtown, as I said, and we have 1,700 people here. I often wonder where would they be if they weren't here. And many of them would be downtown and on the River Walk, in front of the hotels.”

Stone said the organization has grown more compassionate in recent years but criticized its “courtyard,” an open-air sleeping space Haven for Hope initiated under Marbut’s stewardship.

“The courtyard seemed like it was about cleaning up downtown San Antonio,” Stone said.

Haven for Hope’s courtyard is crowded but safe, said City Councilman Roberto Treviño, who said he spent the night in the courtyard a few years ago.

“I think Haven for Hope is doing the best that it can with a difficult situation,” he said.

After the shelter became operational in June 2010, Marbut stepped down to focus on securing affordable housing for San Antonio’s homeless, the San Antonio Express-News reported at the time.

But by October, the city of St. Petersburg, Florida, had retained Marbut as a consultant.

Marbut has also worked for cities like Salt Lake City; Fresno, California; and Daytona Beach, Florida, where he made headlines after he disguised himself as a homeless man and told city leaders to quit “enabling” people experiencing homelessness by allowing handouts from service providers.

He has been a critic of the "housing first" model espoused by many advocates and supported by the Obama and Bush administrations. Under that approach, people experiencing homelessness are provided with permanent supportive housing before other needs, like job training or substance abuse treatment. In September, the Trump administration issued a report on homelessness that questioned the effectiveness of that approach.

As Marbut has traveled the country as a consultant, Haven for Hope has been cited as a model organization, earning a community leadership award from Abbott in 2017.

San Antonio City Councilwoman Rebecca J. Viagran suggested Marbut’s new job could give her city an opportunity to lend the federal government a unique perspective.

“I think having him in this position in Washington, D.C., could allow us to give good insight into what is working,” she said.

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