President-Elect Biden’s transition team takes on another controversial appointment.
Heidi Marston, current Executive Director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), has drawn criticism from local advocates for the unhoused community, former colleagues, and veterans following her appointment to the Biden-Harris transition team for Veterans Affairs.
This week, activists published an open letter to President-Elect Biden detailing Marston’s lack of experience in improving the lives of veterans, particularly during her time at LAHSA, in the wake of the Veteran Affairs transition team announcement. The authors argued that her cooperation and unwillingness to stop collaboration with law enforcement, as well as the CARE/CARE+ programs’ continued sweeping of local encampments and policing the “sitting, sleeping, eating, and possessing personal belongings in public space,” were disqualifying as a candidate to serve within Veteran’s Affairs on the national level.
“Under Marston’s leadership, unhoused veterans in Los Angeles have been subject to criminalization, inhumane sweeps and displacement, and a severe lack of resources,” one of the authors of an open letter to Biden regarding Marston’s appointment told KNOCK.LA. “We need to hold our executive branch accountable for building teams who are truly going to influence change.”
Further, the letter posited that Marston “has not demonstrated a critical understanding of the intersections of power, privilege, and the history of poverty in this country.”
“The federal government policies have a very large impact on what homelessness looks like and what our response looks like across the whole country,” Marston told KPCC following the announcement of her position. “I think we’ve learned some of the true impacts of that during the last administration, particularly in seeing things that have been rolled back.”
These comments are not untrue, but align directly with reasons why many familiar with her career find Marston to be unfit to serve on the transition team. To get to the heart of the letter’s message, it’s important to understand Marston’s 11-year history working for city, state, and federal agencies directly impacting the lives of American veterans.
Marston’s background prior to being appointed Executive Director of LAHSA included a number of positions in Veterans Affairs beginning in 2009 at the beginning of President Obama’s first term. During her tenure, Marston began as a Veterans Service Representative, working her way up to Special Assistant to the Secretary at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in DC before being relocated to Los Angeles in 2017. There, she worked as Director of Community Engagement and Reintegration Services from until early 2019. At this time, she took her first position at LAHSA.
Once there, Marston’s rise to prominence in LAHSA (a city/county collaborative organization) was both abrupt and marked with controversy. She joined in early 2019 as a Chief Program Officer, then was appointed as Interim Executive Director in January before taking on the role permanently in June. LAHSA’s handling of the COVID-19 epidemic has been widely criticized, ranging from initial delayed response, to the many broken promises that came about with Project Roomkey, to Marston’s continued commitment to maintaining relationships with LA Sanitation and the LAPD, two agencies whose violence toward (majority-Black) unhoused communities were well-documented for years before the pandemic.
Employees within LAHSA have spoken out against Marston’s unwillingness to sever ties between LAHSA and law enforcement with increasing frequency. Early this summer, a then-employee of LAHSA published a petition written with guidance from Black Lives Matter LA, Dignity & Power Now, Meztli Projects, and Reverend Edward L. Anderson, demanding that LAHSA to end their partnerships with the LAPD and LA County Sheriffs. Citing the history of racist, senseless violence against the Black unhoused community in particular, the petition gained widespread support in pointing out the direct conflict LAHSA’s cooperation with these agencies created to carry out its intended purpose.
The petition argued that LAHSA employees continuing to work alongside law enforcement (whose violence further disenfranchised a community already disproportionately affected by the homelessness crisis and COVID-19) defied the core values of their work.
Instead of publicly considering the petition, the employee who co-wrote the petition was fired from LAHSA without specific reason later in the summer. This act of apparent employer retaliation caused backlash as LAHSA’s commitments to Project Roomkey became less and less efficient and discussions of reinstating CARE sweeps began to gain traction.
Marston’s comments on the disagreement within LAHSA maintained that she was in favor of maintaining relationships with law enforcement.
“To the extent that that is unavoidable, we want our partnerships with those entities to be positive and to be able to reflect the values that LAHSA upholds in how we treat individuals who are unsheltered,” she told the LA Times in June.
The authors of the letter firmly disagree that continuing this cooperation serves the unhoused or veteran communities in any way.
“Biden’s transition team members will play a pivotal role in re-framing the political narrative in this country,” they told KNOCK.LA. “Our veterans should be at the forefront of this narrative, and should have a say in who is leading the charge in ensuring they have the resources, services, and support that they need.”
Through the open letter to President-Elect Biden, those concerned hope to draw attention to the effects that the policies Marston imposed during her tenure at LAHSA have actively oppressed the veteran community she is being hired to serve. The letter continues:
“Marston has had ample opportunity to improve the quality of lives for unhoused veterans; one of such opportunities was Project Room Key. The program introduced at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic promised 15,000 rooms to unhoused individuals, but failed so throughoully that only 3,485 rooms are currently operational. The number of unhoused veterans did not change during the course of this program.”
It’s indisputable that Marston has made promises to the unhoused community, and to unhoused veterans in particular, that have been broken. Activists like veteran John Motter with About Face uphold that given her track record within her city, she is a bad fit for a transition team intended to improve conditions for veterans across the country.
“Anyone looking to Los Angeles as an example of how to serve veterans, especially when it comes to homelessness, has lost their minds,” he told KNOCK.LA. “The unhoused vets I’ve worked with hate LAHSA as a result of her actions. This makes the job of her well-meaning subordinates almost impossible now.”
As the Biden-Harris transition team seems to indicate, the “normal” the administration seeks to restore is one marked by inefficient at best, actively harmful at worst Obama-era programs. The Obama administration, which Biden appears to be pulling from heavily with transition team choices, did not improve conditions in the VA, and arguably made conditions worse for those on often fatally-long wait lists to receive care.
Biden’s transition team is also packed to the gills with executives from Lyft and Uber who made the passing of Proposition 22 possible in California earlier this month and seek to extend its reach. Labor and housing stand to continue setbacks under a Biden administration as well, if recent appointments to the transition team from Amazon and Airbnb executives are any indicator.
Motter feels that veterans are better served by being consulted directly, not by consulting those who have taken an active role in enabling their abuse.
“He can give full VA benefits and reparations to every troop ever discharged under ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ and Trump’s trans ban. He can do the same and immediately repatriate the countless deported veterans across the world,” Motter continues, speaking to many of the issues that were present in the veteran community during the Obama administration and others that have escalated under Trump. “[Biden] can actually investigate and prosecute sexual assault and rape in the military and do literally anything for survivors. He can immediately build housing for unhoused veterans and allow them to safely camp or park on VA campuses in the meantime, instead of maintaining f**king golf courses on them. He can divert veterans facing felonies to veteran treatment courts instead of throwing them in prison or letting cops record them and laugh while they die of overdoses in their cells. He can stop militarizing police forces who kill veterans.”
Marston’s position reflects the attempted restoration of a troubling status quo — approval from maintaining relationships with harmful institutions over the well-being of the people these programs are intended to serve.
You can read the full text of the letter here:
“Dear President-Elect Joseph R. Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris:
We congratulate you on your recent projected win. It is a hard earned accomplishment that required labor and commitment from all members of our communities. This moment provides us all with some collective relief and reason to rejoice as the doors now open to create a new kind of governance. We applaud your signals toward a more diverse and equitable cabinet and agree that this is an opportunity to recognize the talent that has historically been excluded from the most important seats of power.
It is for these reasons precisely that grassroots organizations in Los Angeles, and veterans groups across the nation were shocked and appalled when it was revealed Wednesday that the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, Heidi Marston, would play a role in the veterans services transition team.
Mr. Biden, your staff has said about this transition team that they “…are composed of diverse experts with deep policy expertise, ready to ensure we’re prepared to lead on day one.” And to put it simply: Ms. Marston does not meet this threshold of expertise nor does she garner the necessary faith from the most vulnerable of Veterans — those that endure unsheltered homelessness despite their service to this country. She has not demonstrated a critical understanding of the intersections of power, privilege, and the history or poverty in this country — all of which are non-negotiable aspects of contemporary policy expertise.
In her short tenure as the director of the agency, Marston has broken trust with the unsheltered communities, service providers and advocates in Los Angeles. Under her leadership the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has maintained its collaboration with Law Enforcement Agencies and LA Sanitation in carrying out the CARE Program which enforces cruel ordinances like LAMC 56.11 and the soon to be voted on, LAMC 41.18 which criminalize all unhoused people through inhumane regulations that limit sitting, sleeping, eating, and possessing personal belongings in public space. Thousands of unsheltered Angelenos are criminalized, harmed, and displaced during these sweeps. Of those unhoused individuals, more than 3,000 are Veteran’s of the United States Military.
Marston has had ample opportunity to improve the quality of lives for unhoused veterans; one of such opportunities was Project Room Key. The program introduced at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic promised 15,000 rooms to unhoused individuals, but failed so throughoully that only 3,485 rooms are currently operational. The number of unhoused veterans did not change during the course of this program.
An individual this incompetent and ineffective at their current job should not be trusted with a role that will affect veterans affairs across the nation. Marston must first be held accountable for the criminalization, brutalization, and lack of resources our unhoused veterans have within city and county lines.
We are calling for the immediate removal of Marston from any federal transition team for the Biden administration. Rewarding failure with upward mobility should not be the way any executive team transitions into the White House. Marston has failed at her current position as executive director of LAHSA, and has failed our unhoused veterans in Los Angeles in advocating for their protection, services, and housing they so desperately need.”