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The leader of Los Angeles’ homeless agency abruptly resigned Monday amid an ongoing dispute over pay, arguing that of tens of thousands of people still living on the city’s streets is “a crisis we made.”
Heidi Marston, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), resigned from the board, announced her leave on Twitter and shared her resignation letter on Medium.com.
“Homelessness is a crisis we made,” she wrote. “We can unmake it if we only have the will.”
In her letter, she identified so-called “shadow monsters,” such as “systemic racism,” as well as low wages and high cost of living, lack of access to affordable healthcare, inequity in education and housing, all of which she argued contribute to the origin and growth of homelessness in Los Angeles.
But she then went on to call out the city and county of Los Angeles, which Marston wrote “neither of which delegate full decision-making power on homelessness assistance to LAHSA.”
“We have designed the crisis we are experiencing,” she wrote.
Her resignation comes after Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva recently claimed at a public forum last weekend that Los Angeles County has spent a conservative estimate of some $6.5 billion in addressing the homelessness issue over the past ten years, only to see the number of homeless people living in the county increase from about 39,000 people to more than 83,000 in that time frame.
KTLA reported that the last count conducted in 2020 amid the pandemic showed more than 66,000 people were experiencing homeless in Los Angeles County, up by 13% from the previous year. The figure for the latest count is not expected to be released for another few weeks.
Still, a recent report showed that a 56% spike in deaths for Los Angeles County homeless people in the first year of the pandemic was mostly driven by drug overdoses, not COVID-19 infections.
“Leaders at the helm of the homelessness crisis are quick to state they want to end homelessness,” Marston wrote. “But, when given the opportunity to create housing security, I have watched those same people refuse to make the sacrifices necessary to effectuate that change. Decisions to obstruct basic equity principles like fair pay illuminate the fundamental gap between stated values and demonstrable action.”
When she became executive director, Marston said LAHSA staff earned wages as low as $33,119 a year, which is below the federal threshold for very low income, and 91% of the lowest compensated employees were people of color. Last year, she raised the minimum pay to $50,000 for 196 of the agency’s lowest compensated employees and obtained the funding to do so by freezing compensation for its ten highest paid employees.
“The employees of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority should not make so little that they qualify for homeless services themselves,” Marston wrote. “Rather than taking steps to support, build upon, or replicate this action, those in power in the Los Angeles homelessness infrastructure pushed back against this desperately needed change.”
In 2020, Marston detailed how an average of 205 homeless people in Los Angeles found housing on the same day another 225 people fell into homelessness.
“If people keep falling into homelessness at a rate faster than we are housing them, the crisis will never end,” she said. “A livable wage is a fundamental piece of undoing homelessness’s unrelenting grasp: employers must pay it, employees must demand and advocate for it, and public officials must mandate it.”