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Heidi Marston Created a Legacy of Toxicity at LAHSA and the VA

Executive Director of LAHSA and pick for the Biden-Harris transition team, Marston has an alleged record of retaliation and skirting policy.

Heidi Marston earlier this year. (Source: YouTube)

This week, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority announced that they would not be conducting their 2021 homelessness count after receiving approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. At the top of LAHSA and this polarizing decision is 33-year-old Executive Director Heidi Marston, who spent her career prior to working in homelessness on a steady rise within Veterans Affairs in DC and Los Angeles. As of last month, she has also been appointed to the Biden-Harris VA transition team, while retaining a controversial reputation in both the homelessness and veterans affairs spaces in LA.

On December 3, LAHSA’s blog published Marston’s ostensible takeaways from her time on the transition team thus far. She explained “the most promising changes to expect from a Biden administration: housing first, expanding Section 8, housing for formerly incarcerated, and LGBTQ protection.” While these approaches are necessary, many former colleagues of Marston’s tell KNOCK.LA that few of these issues have undergone any progress on her watch, with some noting active regression and harm.

To understand how Marston came to be the executive director of the Homeless Services Authority in a city with the second-highest unhoused population in America, we need to take a look at her career thus far.

Following her graduation from Gustavus Adolphus College in 2009, Marston began working in the Department of Veterans Affairs as a service representative, receiving promotions in 2012, 2013, and 2014 in the DC Metro Area before becoming Special Assistant to Secretary Bob McDonald in late 2015. McDonald was a former CEO of Procter and Gamble whose proposal for a “master plan” to decrease homelessness in veteran populations hinged significantly around the campus in West LA, landing Marston as the Director of Community Engagement and Reintegration Services in early 2017 in LA.

Reactions to Marston’s time at the VA West Los Angeles campus were mixed — one source KNOCK.LA spoke with had seen several people rotate through the position in fairly rapid succession, and suggested Marston may have been overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility that came with the job. Others spoke far more harshly.

“She was a nightmare. She destroyed the VA,” one told KNOCK.LA. “She shut down 300 beds on campus that were highly functional programs for seniors, for women, for substance abuse in boarding care.”

 

The West Los Angeles VA Medical Center (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This figure was corroborated by VA psychologist Dr. Shobe Sreenivasan back in 2018, telling The Online Veteran that many of the programs shut down during Marston’s tenure directly contradicted the goals of the “master plan.”

“Certainly a PTSD and a combat PTSD clinic ought to be a central mission, but that’s all closed down. Dual-diagnosis treatment is incredibly important, but that was shut down,” Sreenivasan said at the time.

While the numbers of unhoused veterans in LA trended downward during Marston’s time at the VA, the work culture surrounding the campus and Marston specifically became increasingly fractured. Sources describe a number of legacy VA employees on the campus leaving during Marston’s tenure. Due to extremely strict policies the VA upholds on speaking to the press, none were able to speak on the record, but KNOCK.LA spoke to several sources who worked at the VA while Marston did.

Among the issues described were a clique-y work environment that made many long-standing VA employees feel their jobs and programs were in jeopardy. And, in fact, many quit after their programs were suddenly shuttered. A PTSD clinic that had operated for over 30 years on the VA campus under psychologist Leslie Martin was suddenly discontinued, and Marston personally suspended a successful clinical forensic program without explanation, per those we spoke with.

“We knew the program was working — they got services connected and [veterans in the program] bought houses and, and they did really well,” a source told KNOCK.LA. “And I think a couple of them suicided after [the program] shut down.” Martin retired after the clinic was discontinued.

During Marston’s tenure at the West Los Angeles VA campus, a number of exposes from LAist and veteran news website Lima Charlie detailed the run-down veteran healthcare buildings juxtaposed against a number of lucrative private contracts, including UCLA’s Jackie Robinson stadium, parts of the private Brentwood School, and a parrot sanctuary.

 

Marston speaks with visiting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie on the West LA VA campus in late 2018. (Source: VA.gov)

Some of these land deals have been overturned, but most high-profile deals have not, with use unrelated to the VA increasing steadily since the 1970s. VA land leased by UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium served as a field jail to detain protesters during Black Lives Matter demonstrations this summer. At present, an unhoused veterans encampment of 30 tents, formally organized as Veteran’s Row, lies just outside the VA campus walls.

Another source discussed Marston’s place within the larger toxic VA culture during her years working on the West LA campus. Marston would regularly hold mandatory meetings called “Lunch and Learns,” in which employees were led to believe they would learn how to better meditate issues between employees.

“But the win-win was for how supervisors can defend themselves against employees and have a win-win situation with human resources in terms of moving them out of the system,” the source explained. Employees were frustrated with the often “infantilizing” group activities they were asked to do — “you know, stand in front of somebody and don’t say anything and make eye contact until one of you bugs out or something,” they continued. Marston is said to have frequently cited former boss Bob McDonald as an inspiration for her approach.

“She had contentious relationships with certain staff and she would go to the mat with them all the way to the point that they… would get their own lawyers to represent themselves,” the source said.

In August 2018, during the same time the campus Marston lived and worked on was under intense scrutiny, a number of sources also cited concerns about Marston’s romantic relationship with Ian Musa — who worked with the West campus VA as Vice President of Concourse Federal Group. Musa describes the work on his LinkedIn page, attaching a video to a presentation made on the job in early 2018:

“Responsible for a portfolio of eight large multi-million $ programs across the country with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs …a Master Plan designed to redevelop their 388-acre West Los Angeles Campus,” Muso writes on his profile. Sources described this work being done “to the tune of $300 or $350 [an hour]” with few results materializing during Marston’s tenure.

Multiple people who spoke to KNOCK.LA describe internal frustration at Marston for working closely with a romantic partner for VA contracts, descriptions of which correspond to an investigation report released by the VA in June 2020 regarding a “supervisory health system specialist” misusing their office for private gain in a way that violated federal regulations “with a vendor whose vice president was the supervisor’s significant other (non-spouse) and roommate.”

“Yep, that’s us,” Musa told KNOCK.LA in a message over the weekend.

Musa explained that he had interviewed with Concourse Federal Group in late 2016 before being moved to Los Angeles to work at the West LA VA campus.

“We participated in the investigation, which, as I understood it, was administratively closed after a month or so,” he continued. “I provided the list & documentation of all VA Contracting Officials who administered and oversaw the Contract… none of those folks were (ever) Heidi, so I think that aggregated info made it a pretty straight-forward investigation.”

 

Marston and Musa in 2017. (Source: Facebook)

However, the report indicates that the investigation was never formally concluded before Marston suddenly departed the VA, telling colleagues at the VA that LAHSA was “offering her something that she didn’t have at the VA.” The VA report continues:

“During the course of the OIG’s [Office of the Inspector General’s] investigation, the supervisor voluntarily resigned from VA. Consequently, the VA OIG removed the allegation concerning the supervisor from the scope of the investigation.” Marston then started a position with LAHSA as Chief Program Officer in February 2019.

As of publishing time, Marston has not responded to a request for comment from KNOCK.LA.

Musa’s recent confirmation of the VA misconduct report places Marston’s VA resignation at the same time as the Office of the Inspector General’s active investigation. Sources indicate that Marston brought a handful of employees who had regularly sided with her during employee disputes at the VA to LAHSA with her after working as Director of Community Engagement and Reintegration Services at the VA for close to a year.

According to sources that have spoken to KNOCK.LA, Marston came into LAHSA in 2019 with a can-do attitude, hanging a sign reading “You Are On Tongva Land’’ in her office, and welcomed employees to schedule facetime with her to express their concerns. Many did so, impressed with the early showing of goodwill, only to find that while Marston listened to their concerns about deeply distressed outreach workers, over-policing, and a lack of improvement in effective housing solutions, no meaningful changes were made.

LAHSA outreach workers often work alongside LASAN and LAPD workers, which many indicate dissolves trust between the agency and the unhoused community as use of force continues to increase. (Source: Twitter @StreetWatchLA)

Per the source, outreach workers soon found themselves at the mercy of city counselors requesting abrupt sweeps of encampments, further splintering the relationship between LAHSA and the unhoused population due to the sudden and often violent nature of their displacement.

What stands as the most public PR blight on Marston’s record with LAHSA comes more recently, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a nationwide demand to address police brutality. Marston’s statement for LAHSA was initially supportive — a source describes Marston explaining that her sister was a cop in Minnesota, and that she recognized things needed to change.

On June 3, LAHSA released a statement condemning the police brutality that murdered Floyd, stating that they would “not be silent” and were committed to taking action “through systemwide examination aimed at unpacking, naming, and eliminating the racism that has been embedded for centuries.”

Three days later, Marston was unanimously voted into the Executive Director role on a permanent basis. She tweeted the following that morning:

“Police violence is unacceptable against all and especially against vulnerable people experiencing homelessness who have nowhere else to go. We are calling for immediate and lasting reforms.”

That same day, LAHSA supervisor Kristy Lovich was “chastised,” according to the LA Times, for publishing a public letter to her fellow employees and supervisors, demanding “immediately dissolve its partnerships with all law enforcement agencies and redirect the funding and personnel within programs that include police officers like the HOPE, Care, and Care+ programs toward expanded outreach services operating without law enforcement partners.” The petition gained support both internally and in the public, with nearly 10,000 signatures on Lovich’s still-active petition.

 

A Change.org petition calling for LAHSA’s partnerships with LAPD and LASD gained attention earlier this year.

By the end of July, Lovich was fired from her position without cause. According to sources that spoke to KNOCK.LA, a new social media policy for all LAHSA employees specifying not to speak to the press without express permission was implemented at an all-staff meeting within the week. On June 12, Marston reaffirmed to the New York Times that LAHSA was not severing any ties with law enforcement, saying only that she believed police officers were expected to perform too many public safety roles.

“The reality is our outreach teams are amazing, but they’re not out 24/7,” Ms. Marston told NYT. “Our law enforcement side is.”

Sources note that Lovich’s removal from LAHSA was not the first alleged retaliatory firing under Marston’s watch in the Executive Director role — a report from KNOCK.LA’s Annie Powers over the summer indicated that LAHSA employee Ashley Bennett had been fired by Marston at the specific request of District 13 City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell.

Those we spoke to indicated that this pattern of outward-facing openness to criticism and policy change and inward enforcing of the status quo is typical of Marston’s time at LAHSA.

“[She is that] white liberal woman who has a poster who says the Dr. King quote, you know, who does all this stuff and checks all the boxes,” a source told KNOCK.LA. “But they’re empty packages.”

John Motter, a veteran and advocate with About Face spoke to KNOCK.LA about Marston’s reputation with veterans last month (Motter is also a co-founder of Ground Game LA, Knock LA’s parent organization). “The unhoused vets I’ve worked with hate LAHSA as a result of her actions,” he said. “This makes the job of her well-meaning subordinates almost impossible now.”

At the time of publishing, Marston has not made any further statements or changes to LAHSA’s stance on law enforcement’s interaction with the increasing unhoused population, as unhoused Angelenos receive continued abuse and brutality at the hands of the LAPD and LASD. As CARE+ sweeps have resumed across the city, there has been little indication of a change in LAHSA’s higher-level cooperation with law enforcement, which advocates say fosters a continued mistrust between the agency and the unhoused.

Marston’s inclusion on Biden’s transition team, whether she is vaulted back into the VA on the national level or not, is emblematic of the cabinet the Biden-Harris team has been building — one driven more by optics than by meaningful change. Any successes Marston has experienced in the VA are outweighed by her history of policy-skirting, suspension of programs, and retaliatory firings to avoid difficult conversations with one of America’s most violent police forces.

 

Marston discusses Project Roomkey on behalf of LAHSA earlier this year. (Source: YouTube)

As a young woman in a department that’s been run by men over 50 since the Secretary of the VA’s role was created — and appears to be headed the same way with Biden’s projected choice of chief Obama aide Denis McDonough — Marston’s inclusion in the VA team could look exciting to the casual news scroller. Her record among employees and a history of taking on larger roles with underwhelming results tell a different story.

“Granted, she’s an excellent data person, but none of us believe that data is correct,” a source said.

Many sources indicate that Marston’s professional strategy at both the VA and LAHSA were driven by data — improving numbers in LAHSA counts, assisting in Bob McDonald’s “master plan” that sought to eradicate veteran homelessness. What is lost in this process, they say, is the humans behind these numbers, both the unhoused and Marston’s own colleagues.

“When you just look at the numbers, you get a very different picture than if you’re looking at the people,” a source tells KNOCK.LA. “If they’re looking at how many people are being placed in housing, or how many people are being successful, they’re really not looking at what qualitative interventions are being done that are really helping people.”

Marston’s Twitter bio leads with the claim she is “fighting to end #homelessness.” What her record and political trajectory indicates is that she does care about ending #homelessness in the optical, SEO-driven sense — not the status-quo challenging work required to actually accomplish this.

 

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