Trump Expresses Shock at Homelessness, ‘a Phenomenon That Started Two Years Ago’

WASHINGTON — For decades before moving into the White House, President Trump lived in the heart of Manhattan but apparently never noticed that his hometown had a homelessness problem.

Until now.

In a puzzling series of comments during an interview over the weekend, Mr. Trump professed his concern about people living on the streets in America’s biggest cities, declaring that it is “a phenomenon that started two years ago.”

It did not. But in an interview for “Tucker Carlson Tonight” broadcast on Fox News on Monday night, the president seemed to be unaware of decades of struggles by governments, churches and nonprofit organizations to combat homelessness, especially in high-rent places like New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Mr. Carlson prompted the discussion by telling Mr. Trump that those three cities have “a major problem with filth.” The president agreed, calling it “sad” and saying, “We never had this in our lives before in this country.”

There is no shortage of evidence to prove that Mr. Trump is wrong about that. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness — a coalition of 19 federal agencies — has been producing the national strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness since 1987. An interactive map on the council’s website shows state-by-state homeless numbers.

A report released last December by the Department of Housing and Urban Development documented the longstanding trends. Over all, the rate grew by 0.3 percent in 2018, leaving 552,830 people without stable living conditions despite a booming economy that Mr. Trump frequently takes credit for. The report noted that high rents in some big cities caused higher spikes in homelessness.

As president, Mr. Trump has given little indication that homelessness in America is a priority for his administration.

But during the Fox News interview, he said he was “looking very seriously” at how to deal with cities that he said were overrun with mentally ill and “sick” homeless people who ruin life for others who live and work there.

“The people living there are living in hell,” Mr. Trump said. “Some of them have mental problems where they don’t even know they are living that way. In fact, perhaps they like living that way. They can’t do that. We can’t ruin our cities.

“You have people that work in those cities, they work in office buildings,” Mr. Trump continued. “To get into the building they have to walk through a scene that nobody would have believed possible.”

Mr. Trump himself has taken notice of a homeless person at least once, according to a story told by his daughter Ivanka.

“My father and I were walking down Fifth Avenue and there was a homeless person sitting right outside Trump Tower,” she said in a 2003 documentary called “Born Rich.” “I remember my father pointing to me and saying, ‘You know that guy has $8 billion more than me,’ because he was in such extreme debt at that point, you know?”

Mr. Trump said in Saturday’s interview that he “may intercede and do something to get that whole thing cleaned up,” though he did not elaborate on what actions he or the government might take. Officials at the White House and the Department of Housing and Urban Development declined to comment on what the president was talking about.

The president has at times revealed a similar lack of familiarity with societal trends that have deep historical significance. Asked about school busing during a news conference in Japan on Saturday, Mr. Trump did not note the controversial role that busing played in racial integration.

“There aren’t that many ways that you’re going to get people to schools,” the president said, adding a few moment later, “It is certainly a primary method to get people to schools.”

But his comments about homelessness even more directly underscored the disconnect between the nation’s first billionaire president and a problem plaguing people at the other end of the income spectrum.

While Mr. Trump did not use the word “homelessness” during the interview, it was clear from the discussion that he was talking about people living on the streets of American cities. And it was very clear who he thought was responsible for the situation.

The president blamed “the liberal establishment” for homelessness in American cities and criticized Democrats who have said their cities will not help the federal government enforce immigration laws.

“This is what I am fighting,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Carlson. “I don’t know if they are afraid of votes. I don’t know if they really believe that this should be taking place. But it is a terrible thing that is taking place.”

A few moments later, he added that “they are usually sanctuary cities, they are run by very liberal people, and the states are run by very liberal people.”

“Do these governors or mayors, do they really think this is a positive?” he asked. “Do they really think it’s O.K.? It’s not. It’s destroying their city.”

Mr. Trump did not mention Los Angeles by name, but the city recently experienced a 16 percent spike in homelessness under Eric Garcetti, the Democratic mayor.

The mayor faced a recall effort and searing criticism, much of which was covered by the conservative news outlets that Mr. Trump favors. Still, it was unclear whether Mr. Trump was aware of those reports.

Judd Deere, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, said in a statement on Tuesday evening that the president “has taken notice of the homelessness crisis, particularly in cities and states where the liberal policies of overregulation, excessive taxation and poor public service delivery are combining to dramatically increase poverty and public health risks.”

Mr. Deere noted that Mr. Trump last week signed an executive order aimed at reducing regulations on affordable housing development and has directed officials to do more to confront what the president believes is a tragedy.

Perhaps the most curious moment in the discussion of homelessness during the interview came when Mr. Trump claimed — without providing any evidence or explanation — that he had ended homelessness in Washington.

While homelessness has fallen in Washington since 2016, more than 6,500 residents were counted as homeless during a tally taken on one night in January.

“I had a situation when I first became president. We had certain areas of Washington, D.C., where that was starting to happen,” Mr. Trump said. “I ended it very quickly. I said you can’t do that.”

So was the president expressing concern about the humanitarian conditions facing the poorest people in his adopted city? Actually, Mr. Trump said he took action to clean up the nation’s capital so foreign leaders who visited would not see people on the streets.

“When you have leaders of the world coming in to see the president of the United States and they’re riding down a highway,” he told Mr. Carlson, “they can’t be looking at that.”