Why Is Los Angeles Tossing Food For Its Homeless Population In Dumpsters?

A damning report from CBSLA showing Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority staffers tossing meals swiftly brought a response from City Attorney Mike Feuer
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The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has responded to the furor over an investigative report showing footage of staffers with the beleaguered agency dumping what appears to be hundreds of perfectly good meals intended for L.A.’s unhoused into dumpsters in multiple instances over several months. 

The damning footage aired in a report from CBSLA’s investigative team on Monday and swiftly prompted a response from City Attorney Mike Feuer, who fired off a letter to LAHSA leadership announcing how incredulous he is over what he saw in the report and demanding a prompt explanation.

“With so many people experiencing homelessness desperate for food on our streets, this apparent waste of taxpayer-funded resources is inexplicable and utterly unacceptable,” Feuer wrote. “This news report raises a host of pertinent questions and requires that LAHSA ensure an immediate investigation is conducted.”

In the hidden camera video captured in CBS’s investigation, LAHSA staff are seen dumping entire boxes of pre-packaged meals—fresh sandwiches, apples, bottled water—into the dumpster directly behind their Panorama City workplace. A group of unhoused people was just a block away, according to the report, which added that LAHSA’s wastefulness of resources went on for months. 

Feuer is demanding to know about LAHSA protocols, who is responsible for said protocols, what happens when they’re violated, and the repercussions for such waste on the part of a taxpayer-funded agency. LAHSA, a county and city venture, has received over $800 million in funding this year.

“I don’t think that anyone in Los Angeles should be patient about our homelessness crisis,” Feuer told LAMag by phone on Wednesday. “We should be incredibly impatient. There shouldn’t be a resource that is wasted, whether it is the time of a LAHSA outreach worker or the food that they’re charged with handing out.”

For the segment, station producers also followed LAHSA staff around L.A., filming one team as they drove around for hours, taking pit stops at Starbucks and McDonald’s then dropping the meals at an encampment. Another LAHSA outreach team took a long walk in Balboa Park and then dumped the food meant for unhoused Angelenos, with whom they are paid to build trust in the hope of getting them into housing. 

Feuer said on Wednesday that he’s still waiting on LAHSA for a promised direct response to his specific questions. The agency did respond to CBSLA for their report, saying that food is returned to LAHSA offices had been refused and that perishable meals are discarded, per policy. The CBSLA report notes that the meals were driven around for hours, unrefrigerated.

After the investigative segment aired, LAHSA doubled down on this explanation, releasing a statement saying that the health of those its outreach team connects with is paramount. 

“The lunches LAHSA outreach teams provide to our unsheltered neighbors are perishable. While an outreach team will take out enough meals to serve everyone in their assigned area, not all of the people they encounter will accept them. When our teams have excess meals, they can give the meals to entities — like shelters or service providers — that can distribute them,” LAHSA said. “Otherwise, the teams discard the excess meals to protect the health and safety of the people they serve.”

Furer rebuffed this response, telling LAMag that it’s “a pale imitation of an excuse.” He is demanding that LAHSA do much better.

“Homelessness is not a problem — it’s an emergency,” he said. “And emergencies require us to extend ourselves to the fullest possible extent and to grapple with the issue to help people, to get them housed, give them services, and to make sure that our streets are accessible and safe for everybody.”

The damning news report may amount to a death blow for LAHSA. The nearly 30-year-old agency— which was spawned from a lawsuit in 1993 to help ease the administrative knife fight over homelessness funding between the city and county—is subject to the bureaucracy of compliance through which such any agency tasked with distributing federal, state, county, and city money must wade. It also must work in tandem alongside various other departments with divergent mandates and missions. This essentially hinders its leadership and kneecaps its mission. Now, LAHSA is on the verge of being dissolved and replaced with a new entity after its leader resigned last month and low pay for staff has brought near-constant turnover and plummeting morale. 

In April, LAHSA’s executive director abruptly resigned from her position after a battle with the agency’s board over her staff’s salaries led to a stalemate. Heidi Marston, who oversaw the coordination of the city’s homeless population’s move into hotels amid the pandemic, said in her resignation letter that some staff made as little as $33,000 annually; during her tenure, she managed to up salaries to $50,000 of nearly 200 LAHSA staffers while freezing the pay of its top 10 employees. Management saw this as undermining their position in union negotiations, she told the board in her resignation letter, and she’s been mired in the “impossible dilemma” of adhering to LAHSA’s mission as it strays from its own ideals in policy and funding decisions. 

An interim director will replace Marston when she leaves on Friday, the Board has announced; Marston herself began the role in an interim capacity in 2019. 

Meanwhile, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted in a 3-2 decision in March to create a new office—or maybe a department, it’s still unclear—to coordinate its homelessness crisis response.  The idea here is to give this new department authority over other agencies, like health, social, and mental health services to address issues surrounding the country’s growing homeless population.

As of now, L.A. County’s chief executive has been asked to design exactly how this new entity will be structured and precisely what authority it will hold. This is welcomed by Feuer, who suggested the city should follow suit in asserting leadership.

“If LAHSA is to continue to function, I think its composition should change. There should be elected officials who serve on that board who are accountable to constituencies who vote,” he said. “There needs to be a dramatic shift in how everybody in public life approaches homelessness. There can’t be a sense of fatalism and futility about it. There needs to be an approach that says, ‘We need to get this emergency under control.'”

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