By Heidi Marston
Homelessness is a scar on the face of our nation. More than half a million Americans don’t have a home. To each one of them, that means they lack a reliable shower, a safe place to keep possessions, a place for family and friends to gather. Not having an address means not being able to receive mail, which makes it harder to get a job, get information about medical appointments, or collect benefits to stabilize financial circumstances. These fellow Americans have to spend every day worrying about basic rights as simple as where they’ll sleep and if they’ll remain safe at night.
I lead the agency charged with ending homelessness in Los Angeles. Today, I announced my resignation. Those in power who possess the ability to change the lives of more than 60,000 unhoused Angelenos must be willing to do so.
The Homelessness Crisis: The Path Forward
“I have little patience with scientists who take a board of wood, look for its thinnest part, and drill a great number of holes where drilling is easy,” Albert Einstein said.
Our homelessness response, not only in LA but across the country, has for too long taken the easier path, drilling holes in the most visible parts of the response rather than examining the totality of the crisis.
Power and funding alone control homelessness. But in our current system, organizations like the one I lead, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), are not given control over regulatory or policy decisions, service providers remain underfunded, and dedicated front-line employees of non-profit organizations and government entities are hamstrung by rules, red tape, and bureaucracy. We are denying power and funding to the very entities tasked with finding and implementing solutions.
We have designed the crisis we are experiencing. None of these entities are perfect, and in my role I have taken both ownership of LAHSA’s shortcomings and pride in LAHSA’s drive towards constant improvement to ensure the best service for our unhoused neighbors. But in 2020, 205 people in Los Angeles County found housing that resolved their homelessness every day — while at the same time, 225 people fell into homelessness on the same day. Homeless service agencies across the nation face an avalanche. When one person is housed, more than one person falls into the cycle. In Los Angeles, we have been housing our homeless population at record numbers, even as the crisis continues to expand. A look at the wider landscape reveals causes — and consequent solutions — to the crisis that demands greater blame than any service provider or individual.
Looming at the origin and growth of homelessness are “shadow monsters,” concepts hard to pin down and rarely noticed unless we look for them: systemic racism, low wages and high cost of living, lack of access to affordable healthcare, inequity in education and housing, and many others. These shadow monsters may not be what immediately comes to mind when we encounter someone who is living on the street, but they are the unseen cracks in the foundation of our society.
Shadow monsters are so elusive that in our human quest to address the homelessness crisis, we miss them and focus on what we perceive to be the issue right in front of us, “where the drilling is easy.” It is all too simple to blame and problem-solve around visible targets like the people suffering on the streets, non-profit homeless service providers, or LAHSA. The inescapable reality is that society’s collective focus has been on what is easily identifiable, not on the systemic issues underlying the crisis, the shadow monsters causing what we see.
When I became Executive Director of LAHSA, staff at my organization earned wages as low as $33,119 a year, or about $2,760 per month before taxes, benefits, retirement, rent, childcare, student loans, utilities, food, and other expenses. By the federal government’s standards, that salary is below the threshold deemed “Very Low Income.” Amongst our lowest-compensated employees, 91% are people of color. Many have lived experience of homelessness, and some have been recipients of services that LAHSA and our non-profit partners administer. The employees of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority should not make so little that they qualify for homeless services themselves.
A year ago, I increased the minimum pay at LAHSA so no one made less than $50,000 a year. This change increased the pay for 196 of LAHSA’s lowest-compensated employees so that they could better afford to live. This funding came, in part, by freezing the compensation of LAHSA’s ten highest-compensated employees. 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.
Leaders at the helm of the homelessness crisis are quick to state they want to end homelessness. 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.
LAHSA has long been blamed for homelessness in Los Angeles. However, 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.
Let’s Go Where the Drilling is Hard
Homelessness is complex. It is the product of many shadow monsters representing society’s structural failures. But, ending homelessness is not beyond our collective reach.
We need to create fast and easy access to housing by eliminating obstacles that limit the supply of affordable units. Creating this supply will be difficult and require sacrifice from those with power and those who profit from restrictive zoning laws and high property values.
We must address the fact that too many people, especially in Los Angeles, do not make livable wages. We cannot simply build our way out of this problem. If people keep falling into homelessness at a rate faster than we are housing them, the crisis will never end. 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.
Those who want to see the end of homelessness must demand leaders commit to addressing the vast and growing disparity between average pay and cost of living. This will require more commitment than looking for an immediate target and shifting blame to where “drilling is easy”.
It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way
Every day, we can acknowledge the humanity we share with the person sleeping on the sidewalk and offer the help we can provide. True help also means challenging ourselves beyond the existing infrastructure; we cannot challenge systems and simultaneously keep people trapped in them.
Homelessness is a crisis we made. We can unmake it if we only have the will.