Better use of data, accountability in homelessness efforts, audit recommends

Nov 15, 2022

Local governments should be more data-driven and focused on results when addressing homelessness, according to a new performance audit by the Office of the Washington State Auditor.

Auditors reviewed the way two cities and two counties contracted for services aimed at alleviating homelessness. They found that the governments did take some steps to align their work with federal guidelines, such as consulting with stakeholders when considering the needs of people experiencing homelessness.

However, guidelines also recommend establishing funding priorities using data-driven assessments of local needs. Auditors found local priorities were instead shaped by considerations like grant requirements, input from homelessness boards and approval from elected officials.

When contractors failed to perform or meet goals, local governments rarely held them accountable. Factors outside providers' control, such as housing shortages, can affect their ability to hit targets. However, the audit found local governments did not use some strategies that could help improve provider performance, despite these challenges. For example, their contracts did not have language requiring providers who did not meet benchmarks to work with the government on action plans for improvement. And governments lacked procedures to track what actions were taken to address underperformance.

“Homelessness is an undeniably complex issue, but there are steps local governments can take to ensure they see maximum results from their investments,” said State Auditor Pat McCarthy. “We hope this audit helps all local governments identify what approaches are working and adjust their efforts accordingly.”

Statewide spending on homelessness increased by $102 million from 2018 to 2021, to $357 million in fiscal year 2021. However, the estimated 22,900 people experiencing homelessness in 2020 was higher than in 2017.

Auditors reviewed contracting for homelessness services by the cities of Seattle and Spokane, and Snohomish and Yakima counties. Most of the programs indicated their efforts were affected by limited staffing, turnover and administrative changes, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020. Seattle transferred its homelessness program to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority in January 2022, after the audit began.

Recommendations and government-specific information can be found in the report here and in online summary materials here.

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