‘Big gaps’ found in ‘unreliable’ homeless service audit data

Multnomah County

Auditor said she doesn't think Joint Office was malicious or intentionally misleading

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – The Multnomah County auditor has called off an audit of the Joint Office of Homeless Services aimed at looking into living conditions for clients of county-funded housing services, after deeming their data unreliable.

The initial attempt at an audit primarily focused on the health and safety of housing for those the Joint Office placed into permanent housing. However, according to the memo, “approximately 60% were missing address data or had address data that were not actual addresses; some of the client address entries in the file were notes such as “Homeless” and “Need address.””

The audit was initiated after reports on Sandy Studios, revealed dangerous living conditions for Portland’s homeless veterans.

Homelessness is a number one issue for many residents in Multnomah County, and the auditor said it’s important to know if our tax dollars are being used effectively and that relies on good data.

In a recently issued memo, the Multnomah County Auditor’s office said “the Joint Office has reported on enrollment in programs/services as representing placement into housing — citing this as a significant internal control deficiency.”

Multnomah County auditor Jennifer McGuirk explained “we would’ve liked it to have really been clear. This is people newly placed into programs, not this is people placed into housing.”  She added, just because someone enters their program, this doesn’t mean they always end up in permanent housing.

Without that explicit transparency, the auditor estimates their data overstates their success rate of permanent housing for the homeless by 20%.

Meanwhile, the Joint Office estimates the data is off by 10%.

“Either way, there’s still big gaps,” McGuirk said. 

The auditor points to federal government guidance, since 2018, to differentiate the project start date from the housing move in date for better data points on housing the homeless.

“We were going to work to put that into place, and we started that work a couple years ago. The pandemic slowed that unfortunately, it’s not simple,” Denis Theriault of the Joint Office of Homeless Services said. “There was some slowness there, but there wasn’t any reason to suspect that the number would wildly be off either. That was the standard that people had been using for decades.”

Theriault said before the audit, they had the ball rolling on this data reporting change and it already went into practice this summer.

“This is not something that got discovered as if we weren’t doing the right thing. We were making that move on our own. And it took longer than we would’ve liked, but we were there and it’s already up and operational,” Theriault said.

When questioned on this, McGuirk said the Joint Office did notify her that they wanted to start reporting data differently. 

“But what they did not share with us to my knowledge is that they were using that particular placement into programs or services as being placed into housing. There wasn’t the level of transparency that we would’ve liked to have seen,” McGuirk said.

This comes as Portland’s homeless crisis has peaked in this pandemic.

“I think that the same kind of transparency is important on any issue, but especially something that so many people are concerned about and that we’re putting so much money into,” McGuirk said.

While the Joint Office’s data glossary defined the term “placement into housing,” the auditor said any reasonable person wouldn’t go in search for a definition for something that appears to be clear at face value. 

The auditor said she doesn’t think the Joint Office was malicious or intentionally misleading, but she stresses that responsible government provides data that is easily digestible and accurately articulated. She looks forward to seeing the improved data reports moving forward. 

Next, the Multnomah County auditor is planning on conducting an audit solely on the Joint Office’s information systems.

Officials with the Joint Office of Homeless Services said they welcome the interest and any insights for improvement. 

Monday, Commissioner Dan Ryan released a statement regarding the audit:

“Good decision making requires good data. Data integrity is vital in all complex systems, including for the Joint Office of Homeless Services. That is why I led the drive for a partnership between the Joint Office of Homeless Services and Community Solutions/Built For Zero, a national initiative that focuses on data improvement in homeless services. That is also why I have advocated for an accessible, digestible public-facing dashboard that will help our community understand the scope of this challenge and our real time progress toward goals. Addressing houselessness is an all-in effort, and we need to work together to create population-level results. I am asking for the Multnomah County Auditor to present her findings to A Home For Everyone’s Executive Committee as soon as possible so that we can engage the community in this critical dialogue.”


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