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Consultant On Homelessness: Cities Enable The Poor


Economic problems are often at the root of homelessness in America. And our next story is about a controversial way to help those people get off the street. The effort made headlines last weekend when 90-year-old Arnold Abbott and two pastors in Fort Lauderdale, Florida were arrested for feeding the homeless. After he was arraigned, Abbott told the Miami ABC affiliate...

ARNOLD ABBOTT: These are the poorest of the poor. They have nothing. They don't have a roof over their head. And who could turn them away?

MARTIN: The city's new ordinance bans giving out food in public. It's one of dozens of cities to do so. When of the people behind the crackdown is Robert Marbut. He's a consultant hired by cities to address homelessness. He joins us from KSTX in San Antonio, Texas. Welcome to the program.

ROBERT MARBUT: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: For a long time we, as a society, have thought that it's a good idea when you see a homeless person to give them a little money or give them left over food. You say otherwise. Why is that?

MARBUT: If you give cash out on the street, generally of about 93 percent of it goes to alcohol, drugs and prostitution. And if you give food on the street, you end up in a very convoluted way, but still an important way, you end up preventing people from going into 24/7 programming.

MARTIN: How do you know that?

MARBUT: We've done a lot of research. And just really getting to the big picture, there's sort of this move on the right to criminalize. And there's a move on the left to do nothing - just feed people in parks. And you don't get recovery from homelessness by being on a jail cell floor. Equally you don't get recovery from being on a park bench or out on a beach or under a bridge. Where you get recovery is when you go into 24/7 programs that holistically address the condition of homelessness.

MARTIN: You want to link feeding programs with these more comprehensive treatment rehabilitation programs. But does everyone have them?

MARBUT: No, and that's the core problem. So when I go into a city I say if you really want a reduction, we're able to get about an 80 percent street reduction. But to do that, you have to totally retool everything you're doing. You can't be feeding on the street. But likewise, you have to provide and enhance and sometimes create programs that address the root causes because hunger is not the root cause of homelessness.

MARTIN: You spent some time yourself living as a homeless person to try to understand this problem from a different vantage point. Can you talk about what you saw? You argue that cities, in essence, have become enablers of homelessness to some degree.

MARBUT: And I did this long ago. About seven years ago I wanted to find out what it was really like to be homeless and really understand it. So I went out and was homeless for several days. And I've done that throughout everywhere I go. And so all total, I've probably homeless maybe 120 days when you add them all up. And what I find is in 95, 98, 99 percent of most places in America, you can find a place where homeless congregate and get fed 4, 5, 6 times a day. I went in one community, just recently, they had three different feeders feeding dinner at night, all in one place. And not just simply doesn't work. If you moved and got smarter about how you delivered the food and aligned it with the root causes you could significantly reduce this.

MARTIN: So do you see more cities across the country moving this direction?

MARBUT: Absolutely, because what you're seeing - your cities first go from doing nothing. And that doesn't work, and it hurts the economy and the individuals that are homeless are having problems. Then they overreact. They pendulize to the extreme other side and start arresting everybody and criminalizing. Then they find out that doesn't work. And that's about the point in time I get the call. I generally get the call after they've gone from - swung from the far left to the far right and neither side works. And then people start to say, well, how is it Robert and other people are giving these 80 percent reductions? And then that's when they come in. And I said, well, if you really want to do it, there's a way to do it. But you have to realign everything.

MARTIN: Robert Marbut is a consultant for cities dealing with homelessness. He spoke to us from San Antonio, Texas. Thanks so much for talking with us.

MARBUT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.