Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority head quits over employee-pay conflict

Heidi Marston of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority talks to the media following a news conference in August 2019.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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The head of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority tendered her resignation Monday, citing friction with the organization’s board over her unilateral decision to raise the salaries of its lowest-paid staffers.

Heidi Marston, LAHSA’s executive director, leaves at a pivotal moment as elections in the city and county — along with the resolution of a years-long legal fight over homelessness in Los Angeles — could alter the strategy for how the region helps its homeless population.

Several members of LAHSA’s governing commission said they were perplexed and disappointed by Marston’s sudden decision. Others said they were disheartened.

“As a friend, I asked her to remain,” said the Rev. Andy Bales, president and chief executive of the Union Rescue Mission, who was appointed to the commission in November. “She clearly had made up her mind.”

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In a letter to the board, Marston said her resignation would take effect May 27, and in a statement, LAHSA Commission Chair Jacqueline Waggoner said “interim leadership will be appointed in short order.”

Marston started in the job in an interim capacity in 2019 and oversaw the agency, which is a joint-powers authority between the city and county of Los Angeles, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. She was instrumental in helping coordinate and set up a network of rented hotels where homeless people vulnerable to the coronavirus could stay in individual rooms.

The organization she helms sits in a difficult spot, with neither the power to build housing or shelter nor many of the tools that help people get off the streets. Much of its sway comes from distributing money to nonprofits that run shelters and hiring outreach workers who fan out across the region to help homeless people.

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Some of these service providers worry that turnover at the top will complicate their work at a moment when a good deal of soul-searching is occurring over the bureaucratic structure of LAHSA and how it interacts with an alphabet soup of city, county and federal agencies. Several competing visions for reforming the agency, including shifting its large outreach staff to a new county entity and dissolving it altogether, are gaining 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 has helped do outreach across the city. “That’s a good assumption.”

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In her resignation letter, Marston said that LAHSA employees were making as little as $33,000 and that the organization was experiencing an enormous amount of turnover as a result. In March 2021, Marston raised the annual salary of 196 employees at LAHSA to $50,000 and froze the compensation of the organization’s 10 highest-paid staffers, according to the letter.

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

“My decision ... addressed the permanent need — as well as the pressing need of this moment in history — to align our commitments and values at every level of our work.”

In the past, Marston has been critical of officials in Los Angeles for focusing too much on erasing visible signs of homelessness — with changes to its anti-camping ordinance or the clearing of large encampments in places like Echo Park Lake — and not more adequately addressing the crisis’ root causes.

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In an interview Monday, she said there was no single reason her announcement came this week, more than a year after the raises went into effect. She said the dispute over pay reflected her growing frustration over the financial and governance constraints impeding LAHSA’s mission of ending homelessness — and her personal dedication to racial and social equity.

“You know, at some point, when we’re talking about these issues around equity, we have to be able to make fast change, and there are very few things where LAHSA has the opportunity to do that,” she said.

“In this role, I have faced the impossible dilemma of representing and driving LA’s best-practice homeless services, while charged with silent adoption of policy and funding decisions that stray from those best practices,” she wrote in her letter to the board.

Hark Dietz applauded Marston’s willingness “to call out the systems that cause and perpetuate homelessness.” Hark Dietz has previously said resources are often distributed in a political manner that is far less effective in helping the homeless population.

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Still, as one of Los Angeles’ largest homeless services providers, Hark Dietz was critical in some respects of how Marston went about raising staff salaries. The result, she said, was that LAHSA ended up poaching many employees from her organization.

In hindsight, she would have liked to see LAHSA talk to providers and make a plan so that they could raise salaries in lockstep.

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The organization’s oversight commission, which is made up of people who are appointed by city and county politicians, questioned the unilateral move. Multiple sources familiar with the matter told The Times that the board wasn’t opposed to raising salaries but instead needed to have a role in approving the increases.

Informed by email in advance of the March 2021 pay raises, but after staff had been told, the commissioners initially raised no concerns. But in January of this year, they questioned the decision after it had become an issue in negotiations with the employees’ union, SEIU, leading to a pay raise on top of the new base salary.

The commission’s management committee sought clarification from Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer. In a February opinion obtained by The Times, attorneys found that the raises constituted a revision to the union contract that should have been approved by the commission.

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“The increase in compensation paid to LAHSA employees does not appear to be within the Commission’s delegated authority to the Executive Director,” the memo states.

Commissioners interviewed by The Times denied that they were seeking to reprimand Marston. For her part, Marston wasn’t concerned about being fired.

“There was no disagreement; front-line workers received raises effective March, 2021,” said Sarah Dusseault, a former commissioner who was a member of the management committee at the time. “The committee supported better pay, but asked questions about implementation which were expected to be resolved.”

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In the interview Monday, Marston chafed at the contention she was out of line.

“If the CEO of an almost-billion-dollar organization has to go to their commission to increase the pay of employees, which is something within the budget that commission had approved, I don’t know what you need the CEO or the executive director for,” Marston said.

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