New LA homelessness director: ‘Police officers can't be social workers’

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Heidi Marston at the launch of the volunteer deployment for the homeless count in January. Photo courtesy of Heidi Marston.

The City and County of LA recently struck a deal with U.S. District Judge David O. Carter to bring 7,000 unhoused residents indoors. That would still leave 60,000 people on the streets. The organization dealing with the rise of homelessness here is the LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). 

Heidi Marston is the new executive director of LAHSA. She talks with KCRW about the importance of housing unsheltered people during COVID-19 and the role of police in homelessness outreach. 

Marston says that the COVID-19 pandemic has served as a way to tackle homelessness as the crisis it is in Los Angeles. 

“I still truly believe it is unfortunate that it took a global pandemic for us to see the level of resourcing and the level of political and public will to really tackle this issue in a way that's required,” Marston says. 

She says it's her priority to get some of the city’s most vulnerable people into shelters, such as those living around freeway underpasses. 

To effectively support unhoused Angelenos, Marston says it’s critical to examine how people end up on the streets, and how criminal justice and child welfare play a role. 

“Homeless systems should really be the last of all of the safety nets. And by the time you get to us, there's [sic] a lot of systemic failures that have come through for you, to get you to where you are,” Marston says. “It's not only how those folks are falling in and falling through the cracks. But it's about how policies that are racist policies, that are discriminatory policies, continue to drive people to the front door [of homelessness].”

According to new numbers from LAHSA, LA’s unhoused population rose by nearly 13% in 2019. Martson says there are concerns about the future, especially as the coronavirus pandemic led to LA’s eviction moratorium and higher unemployment rates. 

“The factors we know already drove people in[to] homelessness have been accelerated and are compounding through this COVID-19 crisis and potentially could impact our [homelessness] numbers even more.”

Measure H and Measure HH

Marston understands that there’s been criticism over using taxpayer money to address homelessness in LA County. She says part of the challenges facing LAHSA is the high cost of rent. 

“Communities see a spike in homelessness when the median income is about 20% higher than average rent. In LA, it's 42% higher, meaning you need to make $41 an hour just to afford a one bedroom apartment working more than full time. That's just not sustainable.” 

So far, Marston says HHH funding has helped build 3,000 units in 2019. LAHSA aims to build at least 10,000 more. 

However, she says providing shelters to unhoused residents requires more than building new units.

“It’s about saturating the existing [housing] market that we have,” Marston says. “We need to have the shelter capacity to move people indoors, but most importantly, we need to have the housing on the backend, so the people can move out of shelter[s] and into housing.”

The role of police in homelessness outreach

Marston says LAHSA does not support law enforcement getting involved with homelesness outreach, and that LAHSA does not have formal contracts with law enforcement. 

“Police officers can't be social workers inherently,” Marston says. “I don't want police to have to be the first responder to calls that are dealing with, like an individual who's experiencing homeless and maybe having a mental health crisis.”

She says it’s up to organizations to enlist the help of professionals through a service-led approach, not an enforcement approach.

“Let's ramp up our capacity for outreach workers and our clinical teams to go and drive those interventions. Those are the models that demonstrate progress.”

Credits

Guest:
Heidi Marston - Chief Program Officer, LA Homeless Services Authority

Host:
Steve Chiotakis

Producers:
Christian Bordal, Jenna Kagel