Last month, the top official charged with addressing homelessness in Los Angeles announced her surprise departure, offering a scathing message on her way out: the crisis is “a monster of our own making”, she wrote in her resignation letter. “Those in power who possess the ability to change the lives of more than 60,000 unhoused Angelenos must be willing to do so.”
Heidi Marston’s public comments about her decision to leave the Los Angeles homeless services authority (Lahsa) offer a rare look from an insider at the systemic problems that have prevented major metropolitan regions like LA from adopting the rapid, large-scale and humane response that the emergency demands.
Marston’s exit comes as Los Angeles is home to an estimated 66,000 unhoused people and accounts for 20% of all Americans living outside. More than five unhoused Angelenos are dying every day. Local residents are falling into homelessness faster than the unhoused are moving indoors. Large tent communities are growing on city streets and in parks.
The crisis in LA and in California has reached record proportions, but severe inequality is a growing problem in many US metropolitan regions. LA’s broken system, experts say, mirrors the failures of cities across America to help their most vulnerable residents.
‘Our quick fixes hurt the unhoused’
Lahsa is the lead authority responsible for coordinating housing and services for unhoused people across LA county, the most populous county in the US.
Marston started at the agency in February 2019, having previously worked at the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Her tenure as director coincided with the pandemic, when homelessness in LA dramatically worsened, and residents voiced increasing frustration with encampments and the immense human suffering on the region’s streets.
Amid the crisis, Lahsa has faced its share of pressure, and of criticism. Marston herself has faced internal opposition over Lahsa’s relationship with police and activists have been critical of the conditions of some temporary programs where the agency has placed unhoused people.
But Marston has also pointed at deep and systemic issues impeding the region’s response. LA leaders, she argued in a recent interview with the Guardian, have focused too much on removing visible signs of homelessness rather than getting people the housing they need and addressing the root causes of the crisis.
Our response is driven by people who call their elected officials to complain about encampments – not by the needs of unhoused people
During the pandemic, LA city officials have shut down large encampments that grew at major public sites, including at the Venice Beach boardwalk and MacArthur Park, while also passing a local ordinance restricting camping. But they have made little progress in tackling rising costs of living, low wages and racism and inequality in housing policies, Marston said, pointing at the need to construct new affordable housing, increase tenant protections and reduce restrictive zoning laws that prevent building.
Before Covid, an estimated 600,000 LA renters were living on the edge, spending about 90% of their income on rent. As of April 2022, more than 300,000 households were estimated to be behind on rent. Meanwhile, rentals on the LA market have become largely unaffordable to the majority of Black, Latino and low-income residents.
LA’s encampment sweeps, which often escalate around major events like award shows and the Super Bowl, are another example of the region’s flawed response, Marston said: “Unhoused communities get pushed out further and are not offered real options. The tendency is to do quick fixes, which ultimately hurts the people who are already hurting.”
Marston also pointed at governments’ continued disinvestment in homelessness services, primarily relying on underfunded non-profit groups at a time when need is significantly growing. “The model is … ‘We’ll give you a little bit of money, we need you to solve the issue.’”
LA, for example, pays non-profit providers $55 a night per shelter bed, when it now costs organizations closer to $90 to provide that service, Marston said. “The gap between what non-profits have and what they need to truly operate is getting greater and greater, and unhoused people are paying the price,” she added.
And she cited an internal conflict about the salaries of Lahsa workers, some of whom had been making wages considered “very low income” by federal standards. Ninety-one per cent of the lowest-compensated workers were people of color.
“There is a fundamental gap between what we say we value and how we actually put that into practice,” she said, noting she had heard from employees who were themselves unhoused, living in crowded one-bedrooms or working multiple jobs to survive.
“There’s a a lack of funding to do what is really necessary,” echoed Theo Henderson, an LA activist and podcast host who was previously unhoused. He has been critical of Marston and Lahsa’s services but said: “Politicians want to seem like they’re offering solutions … and they blame Lahsa because they believe Lahsa has a magic wand to solve houselessness.
“Everybody is losing – the unhoused, the taxpayers, and the people that really want to address houselessness and come up with solutions,” he said.
‘A response driven by complaints’
Marston’s resignation also underscored how homelessness policy in many American cities is controlled by elected officials whose main priorities aren’t solving the crisis for the unhoused. In LA, the Lahsa director faces directives from 15 LA city council members, the mayor, the elected county supervisors and an oversight board of political appointees.
“Our response in LA is driven by constituent complaints, by people who call their elected officials to complain about the encampment on the corner – not by the needs of the people who are unhoused,” Marston said. “It’s just moving the problem somewhere else.”
She cited the anti-camping city law adopted last year that has allowed council members to ban encampments from specific locations. The city claims it offers shelter to residents before evicting tent communities, but Marston, whose agency does the outreach, said the ordinance was counterproductive.
“We don’t have enough resources to offer to people to go inside, and we’re reaching a point of saturation,” she said. Case managers now regularly lose contact with unhoused people because they have been dispersed, she said; a spot will open up for someone on a waiting list who has gone missing.
In March 2021, for example, one city council member pushed for a law enforcement shutdown of an encampment at Echo Park Lake, which displaced hundreds of people. The city promised housing for residents, but one year later, as the Guardian reported, Lahsa’s data showed the vast majority of people evicted from the park were not in stable housing.
It is important to balance different needs in public spaces, Marston said, but she argued that LA council members were using the new ordinance “as a weapon to move people from anywhere you don’t want them”. Wealthier, whiter neighborhoods in the region tend to have more funding and land, yet they force the unhoused outside of their districts, she said: “We’re just building smaller and smaller fiefdoms and squeezing people out and creating greater inequities.”
Of this year’s local elections, she added: “Candidates are running on fear, and running to appease housed constituents. The real change is going to come from people willing to do the right thing … even at the cost of losing their seat.”
Che Ramirez, deputy mayor for city homelessness initiatives, said in a statement that the mayor’s office and council members had “worked collaboratively to ensure all people experiencing homelessness in areas impacted by [the anti-camping ordinance] are offered housing and services”, and said the efforts at Venice Beach and MacArthur Park had been successful. Council member Bob Blumenfield, who supported the ordinance, said in a statement that “humane laws – are helping keep major public rights of way clear” and that he was working to create more housing.
Mitch O’Farrell, the council member for Echo Park, has brushed aside the findings about the lack of housing for people displaced from the encampment. A spokesperson said last week that his office had “overseen the construction or approval of thousands of units of affordable housing, and we continue to have numerous successes where the work of our dedicated outreach teams results in housing or shelter”.
Hilary Malson, a UCLA urban planning researcher, noted how unhoused people in LA have to learn which districts are safe for them to sleep outside in based on the political stances of different council members. “In election season, the narrative is: ‘We can’t have people camping all over the sidewalks. Where is the enforcement?’ And my counterpoint is: where is the enforcement of tenant rights that prevent people from becoming unhoused? Where is the enforcement of human rights to prevent people from experiencing multiple displacements and violations?”
LA will never solve the crisis while officials continue to focus on removing people from sight, she added.
“There is no political will to do the hard work of addressing systemic issues that cause homelessness … There is more of a will to disappear the symptom of the problem of inequality.”