Chief of LA agency on homelessness quits in latest sign of turmoil

Board’s reaction to unilateral move to boost staff pay cited as factor, larger view puts agency’s future in doubt

Heidi Marston (LinkedIn, iStock)
Heidi Marston (LinkedIn, iStock)

The head of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has quit, citing a dispute over her decision to boost the salaries of low-paid staff of a countywide agency that’s come under increasing scrutiny over its structure and performance.

Heidi Marston, executive director for the joint powers authority between the city and county of Los Angeles, tendered her resignation over the pay disagreement with the LAHSA board, the Los Angeles Times reported.

She said LAHSA employees had earned as little as $33,000 a year, and that the agency experienced enormous turnover as a result. In March 2021, she unilaterally moved to raise the salaries of nearly 200 workers to $50,000, while freezing the compensation of the 10 highest-paid staffers.

“Since making this decision, I have been accused of undermining ‘management’s position’ in re-negotiating LAHSA’s new Union Contract,” Marston wrote in a letter to the board announcing her May 27 departure.

Marston took the helm in an interim capacity in 2019, and was instrumental in establishing a network of rented hotels where homeless people vulnerable to the coronavirus could stay in individual rooms.
Her departure comes at a pivotal moment during a years-long battle to end homelessness.

LAHSA now coordinates and manages over $800 million a year in federal, state, county, and city funds for programs that provide shelter, housing, and services to people experiencing homelessness, according to its website.

Reviews of its performance have been increasingly sour as homelessness has grown into a public health crisis across L.A. In addition, homelessness has become a key issue during upcoming city and county elections.

The homeless services authority distributes money to nonprofits that run shelters, while hiring outreach workers to help homeless people across the region. But it doesn’t have the authority to build housing, and lacks many tools that could help get people off the streets.
With homelessness more visible on public sidewalks, mass transit, and along freeways, some have called for scrapping the agency altogether.

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“Simply put, we are not getting our money’s worth from LAHSA,” City Councilman Joe Buscaino wrote in an op-ed last April. “It is time to dismantle the [agency] and return its powers to the city of Los Angeles and the county of Los Angeles respectively.”

A recent report hints at the depth of bureaucratic problems plaguing the joint powers authority. The draft report from Manatt, a prominent L.A. law firm, noted LAHSA lacks top-level decision-making authority despite its role as the lead agency on homelessness.

It’s also crippled by a mishmash of internal governing bodies, the report notes, and has taken on functions it doesn’t have the organizational capacity to perform.

“LAHSA is flawed,” the March 16 report notes, “perhaps by design. Material governance decisions are made outside of LAHSA.”

Some service providers worry the turnover at the top will complicate their work at a moment as competing visions for reforming the agency – including shifting its outreach staff to a new county entity or dissolving it altogether – gain traction.

“When you have the head of LAHSA leave, does that create chaos when we need stability more than ever?” said Jennifer Hark Dietz, executive director of PATH, an East Hollywood-based statewide homeless services provider. “That’s a good assumption.”

[Los Angeles Daily News] – Dana Bartholomew

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