LAHSA’s life-saving mission in 2021
A conversation with Executive Director Heidi Marston
On June 5, 2020, Heidi Marston became the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s Executive Director. Marston came on board to lead LAHSA in a time where the COVID-19 crisis overlaid an urgent level of complexity on top of a worsening homeless crisis in Los Angeles. Her top priority for her first two years is to transform LAHSA into an equity-focused, crisis response leader for homelessness across Los Angeles.
Homelessness in Los Angeles is at an all-time high; what is your approach as the leader of LAHSA to taking this on?
It is unconscionable to have 66,000 people without a place to call “home” in Los Angeles. We have a moral obligation and a public health imperative to treat homelessness like the urgent crisis that it is and fix the systemic failures that got us to where we are.
I am determined and committed to tackling homelessness with truth, urgency, efficiency, and a commitment to equity. While we are housing more people than ever, we need to identify and call out the obstacles that remain and what we need to remove them, both inside our rehousing system and in partner systems.
Looking back on your first year as the executive director of LAHSA, taking on the converging crises of homelessness and COVID-19, what lessons are you carrying from 2020 into 2021?
When the pandemic hit, we moved quickly and collaboratively to bring 8,260 vulnerable people inside to shelter -that’s the equivalent of 20% of our unsheltered population in less than six months. Within two months, we had more than 2,000 rooms online. This happened because we aligned vision and resources across all levels of government — a truly “all hands on deck” approach.
Given the progress we have made, we cannot go back to where we were. That’s why this year, my focus is on maintaining the momentum we built and continuing to look to our state and federal partners to uphold homelessness as the crisis that it is. If we can coordinate this quickly and effectively in response to the COVID-19 crisis, we can do the same in response to homelessness.
“What are your goals for LAHSA over the next two years?
My top priority is to build LAHSA into Los Angeles’s homelessness system leader and central hub, advancing racial equity and ending homelessness faster for more Angelenos. We can start by changing our purpose from the implementer of a discordant slate of homeless response policies put forward by disparate voices to the driver of a cohesive rehousing strategy. LAHSA has the experience and knowledge to approach the homelessness crisis with a unified plan. LAHSA is ready to step in as the leader in LA County and pull partners together to drive our shared vision, transparency, and results.
Internally, we have begun a strategic restructuring, empowering our talented staff to facilitate a more nimble rehousing system. This is already underway with our hiring of Jayanthi Daniel as the Executive Management Officer, Molly Rysman as Chief Programs Officer, and promoting Nathaniel VerGow to Deputy Chief of Systems.
Finally, we need to identify and advocate for the policies and resources needed outside our rehousing system to address the root causes of homelessness. Our rehousing system has moved 61,958 people out of homelessness and into housing in the past three years — that’s nearly all of LA County’s population of people experiencing homelessness at any point in time. But LAHSA’s rehousing system cannot keep up with the forces pushing people into homelessness. Every day, our system helps 207 people exit homelessness, but 227 people fall in. LA must match its investment in rehousing with investment and prioritization of the two equally important parts of a successful system to end homelessness: prevention and housing supply.
LAHSA can’t solve homelessness alone. We will identify the resources needed and obstacles that must be removed within our rehousing system and the other systems that affect homelessness, from housing supply to health care and mental health resources to our criminal justice and foster care systems.
LAHSA will also take a more visible role in challenging our system’s belief and value systems, which so often become tainted with privilege and bias. We will hold ourselves and our partners accountable to our guiding principles of harm reduction, housing first, racial equity, and a “care first, jails last” approach to decriminalizing homelessness.
Why are you called to this work, and why do you believe you are prepared to lead LAHSA during this crisis?
I believe that it’s my life’s calling to help others. My career path has provided me the opportunity to step into organizations facing seemingly impossible problems to solve, and LAHSA is no exception. Homelessness is the humanitarian crisis of our time, and I believe that we have a moral imperative to do everything in our power to resolve this injustice.
I started working at the VA because I have a special place in my heart for veterans. Both of my grandfathers are veterans, and now my husband. I began by processing disability claims, including military sexual trauma, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and in my last role, I ran the VA’s largest homeless veteran program. My time at VA reinforced for me the need to put our clients at the center of everything we do. The homeless response system is nuanced and confusing, and it’s too easy to get mired in bureaucracy, data, and red-tape, but we must remember that behind every number and statistic is a person and a human life. We can never lose sight of that, which is why I continuously go out with our outreach teams and work to build meaningful relationships with our unhoused neighbors. My door is always open to the entire LAHSA team, our system partners, our clients — solving this crisis will require a foundation of trust, communication, and transparency.
What did you learn from your time working with the VA that you have carried into your work with LAHSA.
At VA, I watched people who had stepped up to serve our country and risked their lives for our freedoms be pushed aside, blamed for their experiences, and in the case of some, thrown onto the streets to deal with their trauma, forced to fight for their life yet again. Our systems have failed people who are experiencing homelessness.
When I was charged with setting up the VA campus in West LA, I saw how quickly systems could move, when compelled, to house the unhoused. We spent two years building the infrastructure and moved 54 veterans in on the day it opened in 2017. The campus is now on its way to 5,000 units.
I blew up the original system and reimagined a system that incorporated homeless programs into healthcare, folding it into the larger VA operation. The result was a 30% decrease in veteran homelessness. I recognized that homelessness is not an isolated issue and that we must integrate support systems.
Why have we not been able to end homelessness in Los Angeles?
Homelessness a symptom of racial, social, and economic injustice — a sickness we have allowed to go untreated in America for centuries, so it continues to mutate, becoming more chronic, pervasive, and fatal. As a society, we have grown too accustomed, normalized, and even desensitized to human suffering. We have convinced ourselves that the basic human need for shelter or housing must be earned or deserved. This has to end.
We must stop tolerating the causes of homelessness and accepting it as inevitable. As long as we have anyone sleeping on our streets and sidewalks, we are not serious about social and racial justice.