Aug 28, 2023 - News

Audit finds challenges in Portland's homeless services office

Illustration of a homeless person sitting in front of a white picket fence

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A new audit of the Portland-Multnomah County Joint Office of Homeless Services found problems with contract management and communication, and raised questions about the agency's basic strategy to address homelessness.

Why it matters: The office is flush with cash from a 2020 voter-approved homeless services tax, but the audit suggests significant management problems are hindering progress.

What they found: The audit team identified perceived conflicts of interest, with staff put in the position of both advocating for service providers and overseeing their contracts.

  • Poor oversight was another concern, with the audit alleging contract managers changed performance measures if they were not initially met.
  • 40% of service providers surveyed in the audit said the office did a poor job providing a strategy to address homelessness.

Catch up quick: The city and county have been formally working together against homelessness since the 1980s.

  • The current joint office was created in 2016, but the relationship has struggled for years — and some city officials are now pushing for Portland to abandon the effort.

How it works: Much of the joint office's direct efforts to help people living on the streets is done through contracts with social service providers like Do Good Multnomah, which had a $3.5 million contract last year, and Central City Concern, which had a $900,000 contract.

  • Central City Concern told Axios in an email that it "has experienced some challenges," without clarifying further.

Context: The audit took place in 2022 and 2023, when leadership of the joint office changed three times. There was high turnover among staff during that period, after growing from 20 employees to 106 in two years.

What they're saying: "When you're an office that's expanding rapidly and you're dealing with churn at the top, you really need to have good systems in place if you're going to come out of that in decent shape. And they didn't have that," Multnomah County auditor Jennifer McGuirk, who oversaw the new report, told Axios.

The other side: Joint office director Dan Fields, who took over in April, was not available for an interview.

  • In a response to the audit, Multnomah County's board chair, Jessica Vega Pederson, cited new training, including "quarterly intensive work sessions" she believes will help contractor performance standards be "clear and used consistently."

The intrigue: This audit started with an entirely different question. McGuirk's office had intended to evaluate what kind of living conditions people wound up in after being helped off the streets by joint office work.

  • Available data was too poor to do that — or even to determine how many people the office had actually placed in housing.

Separately, a tip alerted auditors of $525,000 "unallowable" costs approved by the joint office "due to ineffective contract management" — so the audit shifted.

What's next: The auditor has now gone back to evaluate the joint office's housing data and hopes to issue a report on that later this year.

  • That's overshadowing the county's recent claim that it found housing for 1,318 people last year.

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