Youth research

As homeless deaths rise, LA appoints new chief to deal with crisis

LOS ANGELES — In the nation’s homeless capital, a tussle is brewing between elected leaders whose political futures hang in the balance and service providers who say the system intended to protect the county’s most vulnerable residents is doomed to failure.

As social safety net crumbles for homeless people in Los Angeles County, homeless services chief Heidi Marston quits her post, says elected officials fail to address root causes of the crisis, such as the lack of affordable housing. , salaries that are not enough to keep up with costs and an inadequate mental health system.

Instead, she said, homeless service providers are being used as targets in a blame game over why the decades-worsening crisis has not been resolved. resolved.

“Homeless Services…is perfectly positioned to really be the scapegoat for the homelessness crisis that we see in this country,” Marston said.

“But we know it’s not the homeless services system and the nonprofits that control the minimum wage, that control affordable housing,” she added.

In another effort to address the problem, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this week voted to create a new office to coordinate its response to homelessness. The entity would oversee several agencies and report directly to the board of directors.

As upheaval continues at the county level, 61% of City of Los Angeles voters say homelessness is a top priority in the upcoming mayoral race, according to a survey sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

“I would call it churning,” said John Maceri, CEO of The People Concern, one of the county’s largest service providers. “We are certainly in a time of change.”

Katrina Holland, executive director of JOIN, which helps homeless people in Portland, Oregon, find permanent housing, said her community also suffered from a lack of focus.

“There’s this problem of an influx of homelessness that we’re just not dealing with adequately,” Holland said. “Instead, we are focusing a lot of attention on the visible and tangible impact of people on the streets, litter everywhere.”

Portland Homeless Services Department Director Marc Jolin announcement his resignation in March, at a time when the city’s homeless population has increased by 1,200 since 2019 to a total of 8,000 people now living on the streets.

In LA County, Marston said in his resignation that homelessness is a “scar on the face of our nation” and chastised elected officials for politicizing the public health emergency.

“Those in power who possess the ability to change the lives of over 60,000 homeless Angelenos must be prepared to do so,” Marston wrote.

“But in our current system, organizations like the one I lead, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority [LAHSA]do not have control over regulatory or policy decisions, service providers remain underfunded, and dedicated frontline staff at nonprofits and government entities are crippled by rules, red tape, and bureaucracy” , she wrote.

Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission, a downtown Los Angeles service provider and member of the LAHSA commission, said he begged Marston to stay on the helm.

“I wish I had the chance to talk to her sooner,” he said. “I would have said, let’s talk more about it and share what I’ve learned in 63 years, but it was too late.”

Less than a week before Marston stepped down, the county health department reported that deaths among the homeless rose 56% between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021. Nearly 80% of those deaths were caused by drug overdoses, according to the report.

The deaths were announced by Los Angeles City Comptroller Ron Galperin, who warned earlier this year that “several thousand homeless residents will die” before enough housing projects are completed.

Galperin is currently running for the state controller.

Marston said in an interview that leaders are too focused on reducing the visible signs of homelessness while refusing to address its root causes, including the shortage of affordable housing and the erosion of social services.

“Even the arrival of a czar will not be effective,” she said of the new agency. “We want one person to be in charge of it, but frankly, homelessness is too complex for that to be true.”

County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who introduced the motion to create a new department, said those at the top levels of the homelessness response network should be held accountable.

“Everyone is pointing fingers,” she said. “I saw this as an opportunity to take politics out of the homelessness discussion and give it a bottom-up approach.”

Bales of the Union Rescue Mission said the region badly needs a dedicated leader to coordinate homeless services and funding across the county’s 88 towns.

Going forward, he said he hopes the county will bring in “a singular, accountable leader” who can “kick down the door and do whatever it takes to reduce homelessness.”

“Homelessness is the greatest tragedy of our time in Los Angeles,” he added. “What we have achieved so far is an absolute failure.”