Activists Protest as Trump's Homelessness Czar Visits Denver

Robert Marbut didn't receive the same reception in Denver that President Trump got in Colorado just a day before.
Robert Marbut didn't receive the same reception in Denver that President Trump got in Colorado just a day before. U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness
While President Donald Trump got to hear boisterous applause from supporters at his February 20 rally in Colorado Springs, one of his appointees was met by protesters when he visited Denver a day later.

At noon on February 21, activists with Denver Homeless Out Loud gathered on the steps of the Denver City and County Building to protest the presence of Robert Marbut, the homelessness czar for the Trump administration, who was in town meeting with service providers.

"His biggest thing is to get poor people out of sight," Benjamin Dunning, a member of Denver Homeless Out Loud, said in front of a group of approximately fifty people who came out for the rally.

When Marbut was appointed back in December as the executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which works with nineteen federal agencies to address homeless issues, activists and experts who work with people experiencing homelessness immediately expressed skepticism.

In part, Marbut is controversial because he rejects the idea of focusing on housing first when addressing homelessness.

“I believe in Housing Fourth,” Marbut told the Huffington Post back in 2015. That same article noted that Marbut "likens Housing First to improving the health of an emergency heart attack patient by putting him directly onto a treadmill."

In 2012, Marbut, who'd worked as a consultant for municipalities trying to solve homelessness, told Florida officials that "no one has got out of homelessness just because they got fed. That has never happened," according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Instead of prioritizing housing first and feeding the homeless, Marbut pushes the concept of requiring addiction recovery treatment for individuals accessing homelessness services. "If you’re not [in a treatment program], it has to either be incentivized or required," Marbut said in January at a panel discussion hosted by a conservative think tank in Austin, Texas.

Marbut came to Denver to meet with stakeholders in the homelessness services field, including Britta Fisher, the head of Denver's Department of Housing Stability.

“It takes a community response, with a wide array of partners, to work toward ensuring that all experiences of homelessness are temporary, brief, and a one-time occurrence," Fisher says. "As Denver expands its investments and critical supports to better connect people in need of housing and services, I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to meet with our federal partners."

A spokesperson for Denver's Department of Housing Stability notes that the meeting was private and held at the request of Marbut's agency. Despite claims by Denver Homeless Out Loud activists that Marbut would be meeting with Mayor Michael Hancock, no such meeting occurred, according to a spokesperson from the mayor's office.

Marbut did attend a meeting of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative and will tour two projects of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, according to Katy Miller, the regional coordinator for the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

"None of us want them here. We're going to drive them out of town," Julie Patiño, a civil rights attorney and staff member at the Denver Foundation, said at the rally against Marbut.

Jerry Burton was charged with violating the camping ban. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Jerry Burton was charged with violating the camping ban.
Anthony Camera
To promote the protest, Denver Homeless Out Loud sent out a press release that featured a photo of Marbut pasted next to an image of the entrance to Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp. The visual includes a quote attributed to Marbut referring to homeless shelters as "transformational" campuses. The release also includes an instruction for people to call the Mayor's Office and tell Hancock that "human beings cannot be forced into warehouse-like concentration camps."

Although the rally was held to protest the federal official's appearance in Denver, many of the individuals who got up to speak during the hour-long rally used their time to rail against Denver's camping ban, which is on life support following a local judge's declaration in December that it's unconstitutional.

"We shouldn't have a camping ban here. We shouldn't have a camping ban nowhere in the U.S.," said Jerry Burton, the man whose fight against his Denver ticket led to the judge's declaration.

Lawyers from the Denver City Attorney's Office are currently appealing that ruling. In the meantime, the Denver Police Department has resumed its enforcement of the camping ban, which gives officers the authority to order people sheltering themselves from the elements in public to move.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.