San Antonian Robert Marbut Jr., founding president of Haven for Hope and homelessness consultant, was confirmed Tuesday as the new director of a federal agency dedicated to eliminating homelessness.

Marbut will lead the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), where he will coordinate different federal agencies and departments that address the issue in some capacity. He is replacing Matthew Doherty, an Obama appointee who was ousted in November.

His approach to homelessness contradicts the “housing first” model used by USICH and signals a potential change in strategy on the federal level.

Marbut helped start Haven for Hope and served as its founding president, but departed from the organization in 2010 shortly after the campus opened. He went on to consult with more than 125 organizations across the United States and Mexico City, he said. Just Wednesday, a comprehensive homeless shelter that Marbut worked on opened in Daytona Beach.

“My job over the last 15 years was to be a consultant and start things up and turn it over,” he said.

Because the 2020 budget has already been set, Marbut has no immediate power to make policy changes, he said. But he may be able to carve out a space to discuss methods other than “housing first,” a model that prioritizes putting homeless individuals in permanent housing as quickly as possible. What the U.S. is doing right now isn’t working, he said.

“We are definitely going to start a conversation about rebalancing the continuum of care,” Marbut said. “We have 194,000 people in our country who are unsheltered … I want to have an accurate and honest conversation about what our real numbers are and not the hype of numbers.”

George Block worked at Haven for Hope as the chief executive officer and currently serves as the president of the World Swimming Coaches Association. He has consulted with different cities on homelessness since departing Haven for Hope in 2012.

Though current federal policy prioritizes “housing first,” the Haven for Hope model prioritizes “treatment first,” Block said.

“The federal strategy is … basically just take a homeless person [and] shove them into an apartment, which is the equivalent of taking a sick person and put them in a hospital bed without having any doctors or nurses around,” Block said. “Haven was built around [providing] the services, [getting] the person healthy and well on their way to being productive again, and then move them into an apartment, or a house, or whatever their housing is going to be.”

Haven for Hope does provide emergency shelter but focuses on giving clients substance services such as abuse and mental health treatment, employment training, education services, and legal services.

The Rivard Report was unable to reach Kenneth Wilson, the current chief executive at Haven for Hope, for comment at the time of publication.

Brenda Mascorro serves as the executive director of the South Alamo Regional Alliance on Homelessness (SARAH), the agency assigned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to allocate federal funding to combat homelessness. Mascorro has not worked personally with Marbut, but SARAH works closely with Haven for Hope. The two organizations have fundamental disagreements on how best to address homelessness, she said, but the network of care providers in San Antonio work well together.

“We have a fairly well-run system here because we’ve done it for a while,” she said. “We understand each other, and by we, I mean organizations work well with each other. But you can’t just pick it up and plop [our organizational cooperation] in a different city and expect it to work.”

Though Haven for Hope has been lauded as a model for other cities to emulate by people such as Gov. Greg Abbott, Mascorro pointed to the past decade’s homeless population count in Bexar County as an indication that the organization is not the sole solution. Once a year, SARAH conducts a “Point in Time” count of people without permanent housing. Those numbers have remained fairly stagnant, she said, and indicate that the problem of homelessness may be less visible but not addressed adequately.

“Whenever you look at our ‘Point in Time’ count numbers, they’ve always been pretty much the same,” she said. “They’ve never decreased significantly. So from my perspective, that’s not necessarily success.”

Marbut argued that flat numbers of homelessness in Bexar County show success in Haven for Hope’s efforts. Haven for Hope has placed 4,000 people in permanent housing since it opened in 2010.

“When Haven opened, there was a significant drop [in the homeless population] and then it stabilized,” he said. “Homelessness is organic, it’s not very static.”

“A much better way to look at it is the number of people on the street experiencing homelessness – can you imagine what it would be like if we added [4,000] to that number?”

Marbut has also drawn criticism from other advocates for his approach. National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) president Diane Yentel said Tuesday that Marbut “espouses dehumanizing and ineffective methods that are based on neither empirical evidence nor best practice.”

In his now-defunct consulting website, Marbut shared his seven “guiding principles” which include integrating services in one location, rewarding positive behavior, and stopping panhandling as it “enables the homeless.”

“The efficacy of the ‘housing first’ model is supported by two decades of research and has been identified by USICH as a best practice for ending homelessness,” Yentel said in a prepared statement. “But Dr. Marbut calls for what he calls ‘Housing Fourth;’ large-scale shelters with treatment facilities where people experiencing homelessness ‘earn’ their right to beds within the shelter by exhibiting ‘good behavior’ and are subjected to ’24/7 programming.'”

Though Marbut said he respects other homeless advocates’ views and understands that they care deeply about their work, he argued that the “housing first” model simply has not worked. Marbut pointed to increasing homelessness rates in California, where the governor signed a 2016 bill requiring state programs to use the “housing first” model, as proof that a more “holistic” approach is needed.

(The New York Times pointed out in October that the housing costs in California exacerbate the number of unsheltered homeless individuals, and the mild weather year-round allows more people to survive outdoors.)

Though Mascorro said she has never met Marbut nor can she speculate on what his intentions with USICH are, SARAH has worked with USICH in the past. Using the federal agency’s goals and benchmarks, Bexar County effectively ended veteran homelessness in 2016.

“We hope to continue to work with USICH,” she said. “And honestly, it’s too early to tell what changes are going to be made.”

“In this time and day, it’s so easy for us to be quick to say, ‘We can’t work with certain perspectives and models.’ But until you know the specifics of what that’s going to look like, we just can’t make those decisions.”

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.