Heidi Marston, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, announced her resignation on Monday morning, citing pushback from the LAHSA Commission over her decision to raise the organization’s minimum salary to $50,000.
Marston joined the organization as chief program officer in February 2019 and has served in the executive director position since January 2020. Per an email Marston sent to the LAHSA Commission, her resignation will take effect on May 27.
In the email as well as a public statement she published on Medium, Marston explained her decision to raise minimum salaries as well as her frustration at what she deems hypocritical pushback from members of LAHSA’s politically-appointed 10-member governing commission and its internal management committee. Marston’s two resignation statements also criticized the lack of attention paid to tackling the root causes of homelessness and the levels of oversight on LAHSA that she feels limits the organization from achieving its designated duties.
The dispute she placed at the center of her resignation decision pertains to the wage raises she issued for LAHSA’s 196 worst paid employees, 91 percent of whom are people of color and many of whom have lived experience of homelessness. Their salary increase was funded by freezing the wages of LAHSA’s 10 highest compensated employees and utilizing administrative funds.
“Prior to increasing LAHSA’s minimum salary, LAHSA was paying wages as low as $33,119 a year or about $2,760 per month before taxes, benefits, retirement, childcare, utilities, food, student loans, etc,” stated Marston in her resignation letter, later adding, “LAHSA was paying its own employees less than what was deemed necessary to live by federal standards, a devastating reality and shortfall that was not only inequitable, but seriously misaligned with LAHSA’s core values.”
Per the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s calculations, an individual making less than $60,000 annually in LA County is considered low income, while those making less than $41,400 are considered very low income.
“The employees of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority should not make so little that they qualify for homeless services themselves,” stated Marston.
Marston notified LAHSA’s Commission of her decision to raise salaries in February 2021. In her resignation letter, Marston stated that her decision was important for three reasons: to address equity and systematic racism within LAHSA, because LAHSA had the budget to do so, and because she believes she had the authority to do so. Marston was upset by the subsequent questioning of that authority.
“In January 2022, nearly a year after my decision to increase minimum salaries, the [Management] Committee called on City and County Attorneys to opine on my jurisdictional authority to increase wages for LAHSA’s lowest-compensated employees at all,” stated Marston, later adding, “An attempt to reverse or undermine my action demonstrates a stark disparity between the values [LAHSA] Commission purports to uphold and its willingness to put those values into practice through meaningful system change.”
The LAHSA Commission will appoint an interim executive director while searching to fill the permanent role.
“LAHSA’s priority is serving people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County,” stated LAHSA Commission Chair Jacqueline Waggoner. “We will ensure LAHSA staff continue to be fully supported as they carry out their essential day-to-day tasks to fulfill LAHSA’s mission. Interim leadership will be appointed in short order to ensure continuity in services to the community.”
While Marston’s resignation letter focused largely on the salary change dispute, her public statement on Medium took a broader look at what Marston believes are the largest problems in Los Angeles’ approach to solving homelessness.
Marston pointed to “shadow monsters” as being the driving forces behind the crisis including high cost of living, structural racism, lack of affordable housing, educational inequity, and lack of affordable healthcare. She said that without systemic change to address these problems people will continue to fall into a rate of homelessness faster than organizations like LAHSA are pulling people out of homelessness.
In the Medium statement she advocates for removing red tape to build affordable housing and for paying people across Los Angeles a wage that allows them to afford housing in Los Angeles.
The CEO of service provider People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), Jennifer Hark Dietz, released a statement in response to Marston’s resignation that commended her for highlighting flaws in Los Angeles’ response to homelessness.
“Unfortunately, the current homeless services system is highly politicized and funding for proven solutions are subject to frequently changing winds of public opinion. Much of the work the current L.A. system does addresses the symptoms of homelessness, not the systemic causes. I applaud Heidi’s strength to call out the systems that cause and perpetuate homelessness,” stated Dietz.
In both statements on her resignation, Marston criticized the levels of political oversight steering LAHSA, which she believes inhibits the organization from acting directly and independently to tackle the problem it is charged with fixing.
“LAHSA’s work is largely dictated by the City and County of Los Angeles, neither of which delegate full decision-making power on homelessness assistance to LAHSA. This complex governance puts LAHSA in the center of high-level policy and funding differences without the independence or authority to mediate issues,” stated Marston on Medium.
Organizations with influence on LAHSA’s operations include the LAHSA Commission, L.A. City Council, L.A. Mayor’s office, L.A. City’s Administrative Office, L.A. Housing Department and L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
LAHSA and many of these offices have come under fire for their response to Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis. An ongoing federal lawsuit filed by L.A. Alliance for Human Rights on behalf of a group of Downtown residents and business owners sued the City of L.A. and County for allegedly failing their duty to protect public health and safety and provide shelter for unhoused individuals.
The lawsuit has been ongoing for the past two years and showcases the rift between the City of L.A., County of L.A. and LAHSA over responsibility for responding to the crisis.
The City of L.A. has announced a partial settlement to the suit by agreeing to create shelter for 60 percent of the city’s unsheltered homeless population, provided these individuals are not mentally ill or substance dependent.
County representatives abstained from participating in the settlement and accused the City for dumping responsibility on the county for treating severely ill homeless individuals.
LAHSA is caught in the middle and would play a key role in connecting unhoused individuals in the City of L.A. with the court mandated shelter, but may or may not have access to key County resources such as clinical and mental health professionals.