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Oakland audit reveals inability to track homelessness services

Advocates for homeless Californians say cities are mishandling a growing crisis.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Housing experts say cities like Oakland and Los Angeles may be mismanaging the task of procuring housing for increasing numbers of unsheltered people, with recent audits revealing a lack of coordination and transparency.

Oakland has spent $69 million over four years directing people through housing services, with little indication if nearly 9,000 people successfully found permanent housing, according to a new report from city auditor Courtney Ruby.

The city faces multiple lawsuits over the Wood Street encampment, soon to be cleared by Caltrans, and for which the city may use a $4.7 million state grant to shelter people. The audit complicates matters, revealing the city may not have accurate data on how contracted providers place unhoused residents in shelters and direct them to transitional or permanent housing.

FILE - This May 21, 2020, file photo shows a homeless encampment on Beaudry Avenue as traffic moves along Interstate 110 in downtown Los Angeles. Over three days and nights this week, census takers are going to shelters, soup kitchens, mobile food van stops and other places across the U.S. where homeless people often gather. They will follow that with visits to encampments, under bridges, transit stations and other places where people live outside. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill,File)

“There are large data gaps in understanding the size of the homeless population, and in understanding what services are being offered to people without housing and what the outcomes of those services are,” Tristia Bauman of the Homeless Law Center said. 

Data gaps also exist on encampment sweeps, such as what public and private services are really offered to people. Cities are not likely to effectively track “whether and how people become connected with services, whether they are able to access them and if not, why not," Bauman said.

Ruby’s audit conducted between 2018 through 2021 revealed Oakland has no plan for sheltering its homeless residents — who account for nearly half Alameda County’s unhoused population. Ruby said the prospect of shouldering that burden is a “staggering reality to consider” as homelessness increased 131% since 2015.

The increase has slowed, however, growing about 24% since 2019 compared to 47% between 2017 and 2019. And the latest count estimated 34% of Oakland’s unhoused people were in supervised shelters and receiving some services — nearly doubling since 2019. 

Ruby found Oakland did provide homeless services equitably based on the racial makeup of known homeless residents. But the audit also revealed the city may not have accurate numbers on these known homeless residents and where they may be today.

The city’s housing programs served 8,683 participants in crisis response and long-term housing programs. These programs had mixed results finding permanent housing for participants. 

About 4,110 exited crisis response programs but only 729 left longer-term housing programs, falling short of most targets. Family crisis response programs and longer-term housing programs fared better, and 372 participants exited rapid re-housing programs with less than 5% returning to homelessness. 

But in some adult shelters, only 15% went into permanent housing last year, missing the county’s goal at 30%. Only shelters for families saw better results, with 34% heading to permanent housing. The city also struggled to meet goals to help homeless residents enroll in benefits programs, as only some programs hit enrollment targets ahead of insurance deadlines. 

Ruby also said the city’s monitoring of providers is “incomplete, inadequately documented, and did not sufficiently address service delivery concerns.” The city does not have the analytical and technical skills to analyze, track and monitor data to hold service providers accountable. If service providers enter inaccurate data, the city cannot track participants after they secure permanent housing or determine whether people stay housed, where they go or if they have benefits.

The city also cannot determine how many shelter beds are available on a given night. 

“Until the city knows how many participants it can and should serve in each program, the performance targets tell only part of the story,” Ruby said. 

Ruby recommended Oakland design a plan with periodic reports to improve transparency around homelessness services funding and service delivery, along with more than 20 other goals. 

“We can do better, and we must do better,” Ruby wrote. “I believe establishing and adopting better strategies, management, oversight and staffing is essential to sustaining a successful homelessness response, which addresses the issues outlined throughout this audit report.”

The report is the second in two years to identify serious flaws in how Oakland handles the growing crisis, after a 2021 audit found the city lacked strategy and adequate funding. In June, the City Council directed the city administrator to develop a policy to evaluate homeless services contractors.

Ruby's audit stressed how time-sensitive the issue is. Alameda County could need 26,000 permanent housing units for homeless residents by 2026, but last year had only 3,215. 

“The ultimate success metric is whether people are being connected with services that end their homelessness,” Bauman said. “Without that, we’re not addressing the underlying cause of homelessness, which is a lack of access to housing.”

Cities also have legal interests in studying how and whether services are provided, because lawsuits around homelessness and sweeps are often predicated on cities promising to provide support services. Bauman said her clients face what lawyers call “straw man services” because providers often don’t actually offer what people need or can access. For example, some services bar people from accessing housing if they lack identification or have disabilities.

“There is a great deal of political pressure to respond to visible homelessness in the most expedient way possible, regardless of whether it’s the smartest and most sensible way,” Bauman said.

“An independent audit would probably have more credibility with people who are critical of government spending, than an audit initiated by that same government,” she added. 

A Los Angeles Police Department vehicle rolls past a section of a homeless encampment lining the Venice, California, boardwalk Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Courthouse News photo / Martín Macías Jr.)

That desire for independent audits is also alive in Los Angeles, given the question of whether data on unhoused residents who need services is accurate.

Some LA City Council members this week asked for an independent count of the unhoused population and a multiyear audit of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s previous counts. 

This year’s count showed the county’s number of unhoused people has increased 4.1% since 2020 while the city saw only a 1.7% increase. City Council president Nury Martinez said that number may be wrong, and asked for an evaluation of the count and to consider a third-party report.

Gary Blasi, professor of law at UCLA, said LA has never had an audit as extensive as Oakland’s.

“The lack of accountability for results is a serious problem,” he said. “For example, the bureaucracy may claim that 1,000 people have been ‘housed’ but that may often mean only that they were moved.”

Blasi said in Los Angeles, a person is considered ‘permanently housed’ if they don’t seek help during a short period after entering housing from providers managed by the LA Homeless Services Authority. He said the only acceptable study is to track how many people become housed and stay housed after a year, following them over time with hard data.

“Of course, one reason people who lose their ‘permanent’ housing don't go back to the people who told them it was permanent, is that they don't trust those people. With good reason,” Blasi added.

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