Los Angeles Homeless Services lost its executive director Heidi Marston following a dispute with her board over raising the minimum wage for employees. In announcing her departure from a homeless agency in the nation’s most populous county, Marston was frank about the structural challenges facing the fight against homelessness, and how elected officials are often their own biggest enemies when it comes to ending homelessness in their communities.
“Power and funding alone control homelessness,” she wrote in a Medium article announcing her departure. “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.”
She explained the multifarious systemic issues that lead to homelessness — issues that often have less to do with one individual’s specific decisions than it does a complex web of problems that are pushing affordable housing further and further from the people who need it. “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,” she wrote. “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.”
Marston opened up about her desire to raise the minimum wage for employees at LA Homeless Services. The current minimum wage for employees is below what the federal government considers “very low income,” putting many of the people who work for the organization perilously close to qualifying for homeless assistance themselves.
Marston raised the minimum wage for the organization’s lowest compensated employees — over 90 percent of whom are people of color — and made up the difference by freezing the salaries of the organization’s 10 highest paid employees. She alleges they pushed back on this move, prompting her departure. “Leaders at the helm of the homelessness crisis are quick to state they want to end homelessness,” she 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.”
Marston’s overall plea is for empathy — to recognize that people on the street were often driven there by forces well outside of their control, but within the control of others who can make the necessary changes to reduce homelessness, if they want. “Every day, we can acknowledge the humanity we share with the person sleeping on the sidewalk and offer the help we can provide,” she wrote. “True help also means challenging ourselves beyond the existing infrastructure; we cannot challenge systems and simultaneously keep people trapped in them.”
You can read her full letter here.