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The Leadership We Need

Last week, Heidi Marston announced her resignation as Executive Director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). This comes on the heels of Dr. Jonathan Sherin stepping down as the Director of the LA County Department of Mental Health (DMH), and the same day the executive leadership team resigned from the National Health Foundation (NHF), all key partners in the fight to end homelessness for vulnerable populations.   

In moments like this, it’s important to acknowledge the contributions of our partners and the impact of losing key system leaders. It is also important to reflect on the leadership we need to ensure the success of their successors.  

Their Contributions  

Dr. Sherin’s tenure at DMH included an expansion of 24/7 suicide prevention services, more community based mental health facilities, and alternatives to law enforcement approaches to mental health crises. For those advancements, we are grateful and will continue working with the DMH team while an interim director is identified.   

 Kelly Bruno and her team helped NHF launch four recuperative care centers serving thousands of unhoused individuals and is partnering with the City of L.A. to open a new residential facility in Council District 6 to help house and care for hundreds of unhoused older adults. Their insistence and assurance that unhoused individuals be afforded dignified accommodations is an example to everyone creating trauma-informed spaces for people in crisis.

 As LAHSA Executive Director, Heidi built a diverse team of remarkable leaders and charged them with improving LAHSA’s operations while protecting lives and expanding access to shelter and housing. She did so while navigating a perilous pandemic, ongoing, unresolved governance questions, and a hyper-politicized, enduring federal lawsuit. As a partner in that work, we’ve seen genuine signs of progress, and are eager to accelerate that progress in the months and years ahead with the capable team that remains.  

But despite their many contributions, and our gratitude for them, this moment actually isn’t about John, Kelly, or Heidi. It’s about us – those that remain – and our responsibility to collaboratively end this unacceptable housing and humanitarian crisis.  

The Leadership This Moment Demands 

If we center the need for new leadership solely on the search for the next LAHSA ED or the perfect DMH Director, we are missing the moment.  Like a housing locator sent to find an apartment in a city where there aren’t enough, or an outreach worker expected to immediately house a client in a unit that isn’t there, too many of the jobs in our sector have impossible expectations. Given the visibility of homelessness as the most pressing issue in our City, this is especially true for people in roles with executive leadership. So before we hastily move to find the next executive, we would be wise to focus on the leadership we need to reform the underlying system.  Therefore, this moment requires bold collaborative action and systemic reform to protect those precariously housed, build substantially more affordable housing, and, yes, ensure every Angeleno has the income to afford a life in LA. 

Fortunately, great progress has recently been made by the County’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Homelessness (BRCH) to imagine a stronger county role, and a leaner, more empowered role for LAHSA. By taking action on the BRCH recommendations, the Board of Supervisors has opportunity to leverage the existing power of the County CEO to establish clear direction, authority, and alignment of budgets and policies to strategic goals. The Board should clearly articulate the reduction of homelessness as the top among many of the CEO’s Board-directed priorities – and empower the County Homeless Initiative to drive strategies and budgets across all County departments. As we pick the next DMH Director, let’s urgently create the county governance structure where that role, budget, and strategies synchronize with a broader framework to addressing homelessness before it starts.   The time for further study has ended, it’s time for the County to act on its own thoughtful recommendations.

Beyond the County, we must also drive regional housing system reform by creating LACAHSA through SB679 – because every Angeleno knows we need a lot more affordable housing than we’re producing. Since the passage of Measure H, the number of people moving into permanent housing every year has doubled. We’ve served over 104,000 people in interim housing, placed 78,000 people into permanent housing, and prevented 20,000 people from becoming homelessness in the past 5 years. This progress shows we are capable of rehousing people who are unhoused if we have enough housing, but we have 500,000 more units to buy and build.

As we empower the County and build more housing across the region, members of the LA City Council, LAHSA Commission, and the Office of the Mayor should leverage this moment as an opportunity to empower the next LAHSA ED with the necessary authority and latitude to succeed.  How? Let’s finish the important work of deciding what LAHSA is (and isn’t) – and let’s empower that person to implement a credible rehousing system with the resources and team to deliver instead of undermining their core function. The time for blaming LAHSA for our collective lack of progress is over. It’s a tired and uninformed perspective – so let’s create the conditions they need to succeed.

There may be an instinct to elect or hire new leaders who are “strong” and “authoritative.” But our biggest strides have come through deep collaboration. We need leaders who can understand their role relative to the other key partners, and who are committed to a collective effort. We need politicians to match their bold pledges to build more housing with equally bold commitments to do so collaboratively. “Strong leaders” cannot overcome broken systems, and we’ll miss the moment if we don’t acknowledge that reality.  

The Opportunity Costs are Unacceptably High 

In addition to the resignation announcements of Heidi Marston and Dr. Sherin, last week we also learned that 1,998 people experiencing homelessness died in Los Angeles between April 2020 and March 2021. Up 56% from the pre-pandemic year prior.   

Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Eight.   

There is no one director, one elected official, one mayor, office, or organization who is responsible for this absolutely unacceptable level of human suffering and loss. This is a societal failure rooted in decades of poverty, broken social and economic policy, and the ongoing legacy of structural racism. Now more than ever we need sustained leadership – from every director, elected official, mayor, office, philanthropist, organization, and everyone reading this.