Ben Carson does not like the creature comforts, at least not for low-income Americans reliant on the government for a helping hand.
As he toured facilities for the poor in Ohio last week, Mr. Carson, the neurosurgeon-turned-housing secretary, joked that a relatively well-appointed apartment complex for veterans lacked “only pool tables.” He inquired at one stop whether animals were allowed. At yet another, he nodded, plainly happy, as officials explained how they had stacked dozens of bunk beds inside a homeless shelter and purposefully did not provide televisions.
Compassion, Mr. Carson explained in an interview, means not giving people “a comfortable setting that would make somebody want to say: ‘I’ll just stay here. They will take care of me.’”
When Mr. Carson assumed the helm of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he had no government experience, no political experience beyond a failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination and no burning desire to run a major federal bureaucracy. But his views on poverty alleviation were tough-minded and well-known, informed by his childhood in Detroit and his own bootstraps journey from Motor City urban grit to the operating theater of Johns Hopkins University.
After two months as the Trump administration’s point man on alleviating poverty, those views have not changed. At each stop of a tour through the Columbus area, local officials grinned as they explained the importance of his agency and made their cases for their budgets, which are on the president’s chopping block. But the secretary was resolute in his belief that too much government assistance has led to too much dependence.
“We have some people who are mentally ill. We have some elderly and disabled people. We can’t expect in many cases those people to do a great deal to take care of themselves,” he said. But, he added, “There is another group of people who are able-bodied individuals, and I think we do those people a great disservice when we simply maintain them.”
Antoine Williams, 45, who lives in a supportive housing complex for the chronically homeless, shook his head after Mr. Carson finished greeting officials in the lobby of his building and headed out in a four-car motorcade.
“If he got something to do with Trump, that means he’s not really for us,” Mr. Williams said. “It’s not surprising. That’s what the rich do, they make it hard for the poor.”
Ben Carson, secretary of housing and urban development, toured the Columbus Choice Neighborhood in Ohio last week. A planning grant from HUD helped to fund the neighborhood.
Alzene Munnerlyn, 87, who uses a voucher to pay part of her rent in senior housing, was critical of Mr. Carson’s visit to her apartment in Columbus.
Copies of Mr. Carson’s biography, “Gifted Hands,” in Bryanna Ramirez’s apartment in Columbus. “The best thing to do is to do what Ben Carson is doing and that’s walking through to see if programs are really benefiting people and if people are really serious,” Ms. Ramirez said.
“We are talking about incentivizing those who help themselves,” Mr. Carson said, before asking about how comfortable a supportive housing center for drug addicts in Lancaster, Ohio, was letting people get.
To some, just making the trip here showed that Mr. Carson is studying housing deeply and relying on both experts and personal stories to do his job. Mr. Carson, who has also visited Detroit, Dallas and Miami on his listening tour, peppered officials at housing projects in Ohio about which agency or company was paying for the maintenance, what comforts they were providing and what kind of job training facilities each had.
And in an interview, he indicated that some of President Trump’s tough-minded budget cuts might be more bluster than bottom lines. HUD programs targeted for elimination, including Community Development Block Grants, which help fund efforts like Meals on Wheels, may wind up with different names, but they will continue to function in some of the same ways, he said, addressing the president’s proposal to cut HUD’s budget by 13 percent.
“I know they have been called out for elimination. My impression is that what he is really saying is that there are problems with those programs,” Mr. Carson said. “And I think it may have been someone on his staff who kind of said, ‘Well, maybe we just need to get rid of the whole program.’ No, we don’t need to get rid of the whole program because there are some extremely good things there.”
Mr. Carson said he planned to focus much of his energy on persuading developers to hire local low-income residents for construction programs.
But he also indicated that money would be tight and focused. At a supportive housing center for drug addicts in Lancaster, Ohio, Trisha Farmer, the chief executive of the Recovery Center, pleaded for more federal help to house recovering addicts.
Mr. Carson interjected. “We are talking about incentivizing those who help themselves,” he said, before again asking minutes later about how comfortable the facility was letting people get.
To some residents who met with Mr. Carson, the tour was nothing more than a dog-and-pony show.
On his second day in Columbus, Mr. Carson stopped by the apartment of Alzene Munnerlyn, an 87-year-old living in senior housing and using a voucher to pay part of her rent after she was priced out of her last apartment. For about 10 minutes, Mr. Carson and several local housing officials posed for pictures in Ms. Munnerlyn’s living room and chatted with her about her place.
As Mr. Carson was leaving, Ms. Munnerlyn, a retired information officer for the Ohio Department of Education, said she felt a little used. She had wanted to tell Mr. Carson that President Trump’s plans to cut funding for housing vouchers might make it harder for other seniors to keep their homes.
But, she said: “It was staged. It was so fast.”
“There needs to be a forum where you can just sit and talk with him, and he could ask you how you feel and then you could express yourself,” she said, frowning.
Hours later, Bela Koe-Krompecher, clinical director at the Y.M.C.A. of Central Ohio, expressed a similar sentiment after walking with the housing secretary through an apartment and medical clinic for the chronically homeless.
“It’s so choreographed,” he said moments after Mr. Carson left Franklin Station, a supportive housing center for the homeless. “I was kind of told, ‘Be quiet, Bela.’ But I think people need to have that blunt conversation.”
During the visit, Mr. Carson had asked whether people had to be sober and drug free to get housing. The question is at the heart of a philosophy change in housing made some decades ago, and it stuck with Mr. Koe-Krompecher as he explained his worries about the Trump administration’s policy direction.
“The thinking was for years, you had to be clean and sober to get housing. And harm reduction philosophy says, ‘No, you don’t,’” Mr. Koe-Krompecher explained. “‘Housing first’ says, ‘We house them, we get them services.’ So when he asked if someone was clean to live here? The answer is, ‘No.’”
Not everyone was so harsh. Bryanna Ramirez, 24, beamed as Mr. Carson visited her two-bedroom apartment in a housing facility set aside for low-income parents who are working. Ms. Ramirez, a single mother, is earning an associate degree in science at Columbus State Community College and had been a supporter of Mr. Carson’s presidential bid. As she and Mr. Carson chatted, he signed her copy of his biography, “Gifted Hands,” writing, “Keep up the good work.”
“The best thing to do is to do what Ben Carson is doing and that’s walking through to see if programs are really benefiting people and if people are really serious,” said Ms. Ramirez, who uses a Section 8 voucher to pay for an apartment she shares with her 2-year-old and 6-year-old daughters. “I think you should be in school or working to try to be on your own because that’s what America is about.”