In a Fox News interview that aired on Monday, host Tucker Carlson asked President Donald Trump about problems on the streets of American cities, such as public urination, visible “junkies” and general “filth.”
Trump then began musing about homelessness, though he never used that word. During his remarks, he seemed to suggest that he had taken dramatic action at some point in 2017 to deal with homeless people in Washington, DC.
“You know, I had a situation when I first became president, we had certain areas of Washington, DC, where that was starting to happen, and I ended it very quickly. I said, ‘You can’t do that.’ When we have leaders of the world coming in to see the President of the United States and they’re riding down a highway, they can’t be looking at that. I really believe that it hurts our country. They can’t be looking at scenes like you see in Los Angeles and San Francisco.”
This is a difficult claim to fact check, since it’s unclear what precisely Trump was referencing and since the White House has not responded to CNN’s request for clarification. So we can’t definitively say that Trump is wrong.
We can say that Trump has provided no proof. And we can report that those who work with homeless people in Washington say that they know of no reason to believe the claim is true.
Facts First: There is no evidence that Trump did anything early in his presidency that “ended” any problem related to homelessness in the nation’s capital.
This whole exchange between Trump and Carlson was so vague that it’s worth providing more context before delving into the particular claim about Washington.
Carlson asked Trump about “filth” in American cities. Trump responded that “some” cities have the issues Carlson listed, not all. When Carlson asked why the problem exists, Trump said, “It’s a phenomena that started two years ago. It’s disgraceful. I’m going to maybe — and I’m looking at it very seriously…We’re looking at it very seriously because you can’t do that.”
He did not explain what phenomenon he was talking about. Homelessness, of course, existed long before the Trump presidency began in 2017.
Trump then proceeded to lament that people are “living in hell” on the streets, that some office workers have to walk through a difficult “scene” on their way into their buildings, and that areas that were once “beautiful” have been marred by street problems.
At the end of his musings, Trump said: “We may intercede. We may do something to get that whole thing cleaned up. It’s inappropriate. Now, we have to take the people and do something. We have to do something.”
His remarks about Washington befuddled advocates for homeless people in DC.
“I really couldn’t possibly even guess what he’s talking about, or what happened in 2017. No idea,” said Amber Harding, an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
Harding said Trump might be referring to efforts to clear homeless encampments, but she said, “That is something our mayor has been aggressively doing since she came into office in 2015. So I don’t know that he would be able to claim responsibility for that.” Harding also noted that Trump’s budgets have proposed sharp cuts to housing programs.
It is hard to prove a negative, and it is theoretically possible that Trump asked Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser to take some sort of action on homelessness when they met in New York during his transition period in December 2016 or at the White House in March 2017. But there has been no reporting to indicate that this was indeed the case.
Bowser’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but the mayor addressed Trump’s comments while speaking Tuesday at a ground-breaking event for a new short-term residence in northwest Washington, a facility intended to help people transition out of homelessness.
“Now, I hear there’s somebody who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that’s taking credit for our progress,” Bowser said. “Well, let me tell you who’s responsible for our progress. Look around you.”
Aja Taylor, director of advocacy and organizing at Bread for the City, said Trump’s claim is “false.” She argued, though, that many policies toward the homeless in Washington and other Democratic-run cities — such as the clearing of encampments, police accusations of loitering, and the construction of benches that do not allow lying down — are based on the same sentiments Trump expressed.
“People are distancing themselves from Trump in terms of rhetoric, but in terms of action, they are doing things that are very much aligned,” Taylor said.
The number of homeless people counted in Washington has declined for three consecutive years under Bowser. The city counted 6,521 homeless people this year.
The number of homeless people around the country has increased for two straight years under Trump, according to the federal government’s annual assessment. There were 553,000 people experiencing homelessness on a single night in 2018, up 0.3 percent from the 2017 count.