WASHINGTON — President Trump said late Wednesday that his administration would issue a notice of environmental violation against the city of San Francisco because of what he described as its homelessness problem.
Traveling aboard Air Force One as he returned to Washington from a three-day trip to California and New Mexico, Mr. Trump told reporters that San Francisco was in “total violation” of environmental rules because of used needles that were ending up in the ocean.
“They’re in total violation — we’re going to be giving them a notice very soon,” the president said, indicating that the city could be put on notice by the Environmental Protection Agency within a week that its homelessness problem was causing environmental damage.
He said tremendous pollution was flowing into the ocean because of waste in storm sewers, and he specifically cited used needles.
“They’re in serious violation,” Mr. Trump said, adding, “They have to clean it up. We can’t have our cities going to hell.”
The threat from the president was the second time in two days that Mr. Trump has clashed with politicians in California. On Tuesday, the administration said it would revoke the state’s ability to set tougher auto emissions standards, drawing a fierce rebuke from Gavin Newsom, the state’s Democratic governor.
The president has indicated for weeks that he is angry and frustrated by what he sees as an out-of-control homeless problem in San Francisco and Los Angeles — two heavily Democratic cities run by politicians who have been regularly critical of Mr. Trump.
On Twitter in July, the president lashed out at Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose district includes San Francisco, saying that the city was “not even recognizeable lately.”
“Something must be done before it is too late,” he added. “The Dems should stop wasting time on the Witch Hunt Hoax and start focusing on our Country!”
During an interview in July with Tucker Carlson of Fox News, Mr. Trump lamented the state of American cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, suggesting that homelessness and drug use was so bad that it was a public health hazard.
“You can’t have what’s happening — where police officers are getting sick just by walking the beat,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Carlson. “I mean, they’re getting actually very sick, where people are getting sick, where the people living there living in hell, too.”
He added that when world leaders come to an American city, they should not see homeless people. “They’re riding down a highway, they can’t be looking at that,” he said. “I really believe that it hurts our country.”
Before the president’s trip this week to California, the administration signaled that the federal government would be looking for ways to address homelessness. A report in The Washington Post said several agencies had been ordered to find ways to confront the problem.
But there had been no indication before Wednesday night that the Trump administration intended to use environmental laws to do so.
It was also unclear what specific laws or regulations the E.P.A. would cite, or what actions the agency would demand from the city’s leaders in order to avoid the citation.
Tens of thousands of hypodermic needles are collected every month from the streets of San Francisco.
City officials have a longstanding program of distributing clean needles in an effort to reduce infectious diseases like H.I.V.
But the police have reported a sharp increase in heroin use on the streets; in August 2018 alone, the city’s Public Health Department, which has a needle recovery program, retrieved 164,264 needles, both through a disposal program and through street cleanups.
As the number of unsheltered people has increased, the amount of feces collected and cleaned up has also swelled. Last year, the city established a designated feces cleanup crew. The city has also increased the availability of mobile toilets.
Even before the president’s remarks aboard Air Force One, Democratic officials in California had been in the awkward position of agreeing with Mr. Trump about the need for a solution to homelessness — though they remained suspicious of the president’s real motivations.
“Donald Trump is a slumlord who has spent his presidency pushing people into homelessness by taking away health care, food assistance and affordable housing funds,” Scott Wiener, a Democratic state senator from San Francisco, said on Tuesday as the president arrived in the state for a series of fund-raisers and a trip to the border. “He has no credibility on housing and homelessness.”
In fact, Mr. Trump has repeatedly indicated that his frustration with homeless people in some of the country’s major cities has more to do with making sure that others do not have to see them and less to do with concern about the homeless.
“In many cases, they came from other countries and they moved to Los Angeles or they moved to San Francisco because of the prestige of the city, and all of a sudden they have tents,” Mr. Trump said before attending one of his fund-raisers in Silicon Valley. “Hundreds and hundreds of tents and people living at the entrance to their office building. And they want to leave.”
Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, joined Mr. Trump on his trip out West and toured a new public housing development in San Francisco. But Mr. Trump’s comments on Wednesday indicated that he was not satisfied with addressing homelessness the usual way.
Homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area has surged in recent years. The city of San Francisco has 8,011 homeless people, according to a count conducted this year, a 17 percent increase over 2017, the last time a count was conducted. Other nearby cities have had even larger increases, including San Jose (up 42 percent from two years ago) and Oakland (up 47 percent).
One major difference with the East Coast is that a large proportion of homeless in California are unsheltered — nearly 70 percent of the homeless, or about 90,000 people, live on the street.
California, the nation’s most populous state, also has the highest number of homeless in the country, according to 2018 federal data.