The administration of Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson has hired a controversial former Trump administration “homelessness czar” as a consultant.
The move comes as the administration and Assembly enter a formal negotiation process over the city’s homelessness policy and its future shelter plans.
Robert Marbut Jr. has been hired on a month-to-month consulting contract through the Anchorage Health Department, according to Matt Shuckerow, interim spokesman for the mayor’s office. Marbut will be paid about $6,700 per month, plus approved travel expenses, he said. Shuckerow declined to provide a copy of the contract, saying it has not yet been finalized. His contract is separate from the formal negotiation process, and he has been brought in as a consultant for the city by the mayor’s homelessness coordinator, Dr. John Morris.
Marbut rose to prominence in the late 2000s by helping create Haven for Hope in San Antonio, Texas, a centralized homeless services campus praised by leaders in the city for drastically reducing the number of unsheltered people in the city’s downtown area. He has since worked as a paid consultant for cities, developing plans that often include a large centralized navigation center.
The Bronson administration hired Marbut in hopes that he will be able to help answer questions posed by Assembly members about what it would take to run a large facility, Shuckerow said.
“He has an exorbitant amount of experience in this area, particularly in the navigation center space,” Shuckerow said.
Some homeless advocate groups say Marbut pushes an outdated and patronizing approach that makes housing contingent on participation in programs rather than offering “Housing First,” a concept that holds that people who are homeless first need stable housing before they can tackle underlying issues such as addiction or mental health disorders.
When Marbut was tapped by the Trump administration to lead the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a position known as the “homelessness czar,” some national advocacy groups protested. The National Low Income Housing Coalition decried Marbut’s appointment, saying he espoused “dehumanizing and ineffective methods that are based on neither empirical evidence nor best practice.”
Marbut’s approach has been characterized by critics as “housing fourth,” favoring large-scale shelters and treatment facilities that make access to shelter beds and housing options conditional to participating in services. He has also argued that offering free meals to the homeless is enabling and prevents people from seeking more effective help. His “seven guiding principles” endorse using “privileges such as higher quality sleeping arrangements, more privacy and elective learning opportunities” as rewards for good behavior.
In an interview Wednesday, Marbut called himself a “disrupter” and said tying housing to required treatment is the way to address underlying issues including substance abuse or mental illness. Otherwise, “once they’re given a house, the house doesn’t stick, they aren’t able to keep the housing they aren’t able to keep and sustain the employment,” he said.
“My view is, when you give out a housing voucher, it should be directly tied to services. And that makes a lot of people upset. And, you know, I have to always ask, are you into recovery or treatment? Or are you trying to make this a social issue? I’m into trying to get people out of homelessness forever,” Marbut said.
He’s worked with multiple other cities on homelessness, including several in Florida, California and Virginia. As part of his consulting work, Marbut has worked undercover as a homeless person in some of those cities, although he says he does not plan to do so in Anchorage.
“Unlike a lot of folks, I’ve lived on the street, about 190 days so far, almost 200 days, where I’ve literally lived on the street in communities,” Marbut said.
Marbut has visited Anchorage several times, including as part of a federal “strike team” charged with quelling a coronavirus outbreak in a congregate shelter in 2020, he said. He arrived in Anchorage last Tuesday and stayed until Saturday. Marbut said he has toured facilities and potential sites, talked with providers and conducted what he called “grid searching,” involving driving to homelessness “hot spots” to observe. His first priority is to help the administration come up with accurate operating budget figures for a potential facility, he said.
Marbut has experience working with Democrat and Republican officials; he worked for President George H.W. Bush as a fellow and was chief of staff for Henry Cisneros, former Democratic mayor of San Antonio. After being appointed as the head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness during the Trump administration, he briefly stayed on after President Joe Biden took office.
Lisa Aquino, executive director of Catholic Social Services, said she was invited to a meeting with Marbut last Friday, along with other homeless service providers.
Marbut “was basically saying how strong of a supporter he is … of creating a shelter at Elmore and Tudor and how great that site was,” Aquino said.
During the interview, Marbut did not answer questions about whether he thinks Bronson’s idea for a 450-person shelter in East Anchorage is a good plan. Instead, Morris said Marbut could not answer because the mayor’s team wants to respect the negotiation process
“We’ve got negotiations going on with the Assembly that we take very seriously. And that’s bad manners to have a consultant come in and weigh in with the media while that’s going on,” Morris said.
The mayor and Morris hope to revive a plan to build the East Anchorage shelter, a formerly fast-moving plan that the Anchorage Assembly has twice denied. The Assembly slowed the project to a halt when last month it refused to vote on funding it.
Many Assembly members have said they prefer creating multiple, smaller shelter sites spread around Anchorage, along with other housing options for people experiencing homelessness. Bronson has remained adamant that a single, large shelter is the city’s best option, and turned down plans set up by the previous administration to buy the former Alaska Club building in Midtown for a smaller shelter.
The stalemate led the Assembly to pass a resolution last month laying out a formal negotiation process which includes a third-party facilitator to help develop a plan for homelessness that the mayor and Assembly both agree on.
That facilitator is retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Tom Barrett, who is the former president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.
The Assembly members who are on the homelessness negotiation team have each met with Marbut.
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant, part of that team, said he sees the contract with Marbut as an effort by the Bronson administration to bring in someone they trust to help build their large shelter and navigation center.
Constant said that Marbut had provided the city with a draft of recommendations that states Bronson’s proposed shelter site at Tudor and Elmore roads is the best option.
“This fellow’s somewhat controversial but he’s also very well educated,” said Assembly member John Weddleton, who’s also on the negotiation team.
He said that Marbut emphasizes getting people experiencing homelessness not just housed, but living independently.
“I don’t buy the ‘housing fourth’ concept,” Constant said. Still, he said that during his conversation with Marbut he found they shared some ideas.
“I think there’s alignment on a number of areas,” he said.
That includes prioritizing homelessness, offering services through the city and not criminalizing behavior that stems from being homeless, such as sleeping on the street because there is no available shelter or public restroom, he said.