Matthew Doherty, the executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, was forced out by the Trump administration on late Thursday afternoon, according to a memo he sent to acquaintances on Friday and that was obtained by Slate. He wrote that Friday was his last day leading the independent federal agency. He did not say why he was dismissed. But the move follows signals from the administration that it plans to dramatically change its approach to homelessness. President Donald Trump has said that “sick” homeless people are ruining U.S. cities.
While USICH is a relatively obscure agency, tasked with coordinating policy across 19 federal agencies that work on chronic-homelessness issues, homelessness has lately become a pet issue of the Oval Office.* In September, Trump ordered federal agencies to come up with a wide-ranging plan to deal with homelessness in California, part of what the Washington Post described as a broader effort to highlight problems in the state as well as U.S. cities. The Post reported at the time that agencies were considering plans to move homeless people into government-run facilities and to destroy homeless encampments. It also reported that Trump was directly involved in the plans, a particular focus of which was the cleaning up of Skid Row in Los Angeles. In July, Trump told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson that homelessness is “a phenomenon that started two years ago” and “We never had this in our lives before in this country.” He told Carlson that he “may intercede and do something to get that whole thing cleaned up.”
Doherty became head of the agency in 2015 and stayed on in the Trump administration. In his farewell memo, Doherty wrote that he’d decided to stay “until either: the Administration told me to take my things and go; or I felt like I could not still act and speak with integrity. … I believe that I have been able to keep my integrity intact; but, they have now told me to pack my things up and go.”
According to Richard Cho, who was the deputy director of USICH from 2013 to 2016, Doherty “remained true to the bipartisan consensus on what is the best approach to homelessness, which is Housing First”—which prioritizes placing people in permanent housing so that they can make other improvements in their lives. Based on reporting on the administration’s interest in the issue as well as a September report by the White House Council of Economic Advisors, Cho said it is likely the next head of the agency will focus more on the role of law enforcement in dealing with homeless individuals or market-based solutions to housing affordability.
While it does not set policy, the agency does play an influential role in how agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development administer grants to homelessness programs and the Department of Justice advises local law enforcement on the issue.
The biggest signs of a new strategy may have come from the president himself. “I think [Trump’s] messages have been that liberalism has failed and homelessness in California is the evidence of that,” Cho said. “That kind of messaging is completely contrary to what the evidence shows and a bipartisan consensus extending back to the George W. Bush administration. Left and right agree that law enforcement does not solve homelessness, it just increases the time that people end up in jails.”
Cho added, “The worst fears that people have about Matthew’s departure is that this is an attempt to politicize the issue of homelessness.”
Correction, Nov. 16, 2019.: This article originally said the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness coordinates policy across 20 federal agencies. It does so across 19.