Marbut Returns With Familiar Advice on Homeless Policy

Todays News

Robert Marbut created a stir in Sarasota after he was hired in 2013 to find a solution for street homelessness. Then he was tapped by President Donald Trump as executive director for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homeless, better known at the homelessness czar.

He wore that hat when he returned to the region on Tuesday for a town hall organized by newly elected Sarasota City Commissioner Erik Arroyo. He talked a good deal about what Sarasota has done right, while remaining as controversial as ever in his opinions on housing first and other solutions.

On a positive note, Marbut said he has continued through most of the past decade to tout Sarasota for its work addressing family and adolescent homelessness. “Twice in the last week, when asked where is the best program in the country, I said Sarasota, Florida,” he said.

Marbut pointed to work done by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and other nonprofits in the region, hand in hand with the Sarasota County School District, to make sure youth and their families get connected with social services and housed. He categorized the work as the “most innovative youth p rogramming in America.”

But Marbut remains highly critical of an over-emphasis nationwide on housing first policies, ones that put the priority on moving individuals regardless of their situation and need off the streets and into any type of permanent housing available. Since 2013, the federal government pushed from “transitional housing” to “rapid rehousing,” something that tied the measured success of a program to how quickly keys could be put in an individuals hand rather than gauging what social services should be afforded. It’s the equivalent, Marbut suggests, of sending drug addicts to a live-in clinic that has no program available for sobering up.

“We went from treating this as a public health issue to a civil rights issue,” he said. “Some states started to have a constitutional right to free housing.” While advocates said housing first could effectively bring homeless to zero within five years, Marbut said total homelessness in fact has gone up in the past eight years.

Arroyo said he thought it was important to bring Marbut back to the region “to continue a conversation that was never finished" and "maybe assess what we'vedone since a few things have changed in the last seven years."

Marbut also discussed the COVID-19 situation, which he said eats up 95% of his agency’s time at the moment. He acknowledged numerous mistakes made throughout the past year, but said a push for a vaccines has been fruitful, and there should be some distributed in the nation in December.

And with Thanksgiving upon Sarasotans, he offered a sobering bit of information about spreading COVID-19. “We’re finding eating together is the single biggest factor” for transmission of the virus, he said. He noted the Notre Dame football team practiced together for an extended period of time, but after they began eating meals together, the virus spread to about a third of the team and staff.

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