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Are Utah’s multimillion-dollar homeless efforts working? Auditors don’t know due to ‘poor’ data

Nationally recognized reports that Utah reduced chronic homelessness were ‘erroneous,’ auditors say

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SALT LAKE CITY — Another phase of state auditors' wide-reaching review of Utah's homeless system has concluded.

Again, it's not complimentary — and may result in a restructuring of the state committee in charge of the system's funding.

The audit was meant to answer legislators' concerns about the overall performance of the state's homeless system and questions of which programs are effective at achieving goals or placing the homeless in housing.

But auditors from the Legislative Auditor General's Office ran into a roadblock.

"Due to problems with the data and weak management information systems, we were unable to answer either question," auditors wrote in the report released Monday morning.

"Although we found no shortage of information about client activities and the services provided to them, we did not find the data to be of much use in terms of monitoring program outcomes," auditors said.

Therefore, due to problems with data inconsistencies, auditors determined Utah "lacks oversight and performance measures" within its homeless system.

The system, auditors estimate, spent more than $100 million in 2017 on direct and indirect costs associated with homelessness.

Improving oversight

"Better oversight and planning are needed to improve Utah's response to homelessness," auditors said, calling for the creation of an "oversight body that is responsible for strategic planning, goal setting and results monitoring."

To do this, they recommended the Legislature clarify in state statute the specific responsibilities of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, the agency in charge of overseeing the state's system and directing funding.

Lawmakers on Monday discussed the possibility of restructuring that committee — made up of 16 voting members — into a commission, similar to the Utah Transportation Commission.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, volunteered to sponsor a bill in the upcoming 2019 general session to carry out auditors' recommendations. Outgoing Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, recommended the audit be referred to House and Senate standing committees so it could be taken up in the session slated to start next month. Lawmakers on the Audit Subcommittee of the Legislative Management Committee reviewed the audit Monday morning and voted unanimously to do so.

Monday's report follows two previous audits, a review of the funding and expenditures for the homeless initiative and a review of the Road Home’s three facilities, which showed widespread drug use and lax rules enforcement within shelter walls.

Jon Hardy, director of the Housing and Community Development Division at the Department of Workforce Services, thanked auditors for their work during the committee meeting.

"We view this audit … as an opportunity to shine light on those areas where we need to make improvements, and we certainly take this audit in that stride," Hardy said.

Hardy said his department is "disappointed to see we have some data quality issues that are affecting our ability to see how things are performing in our homeless services system," but is "committed" to improve.

'Have to have good data'

Neither Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is chairman of the state's Homeless Coordinating Committee, nor outgoing House Speaker Greg Hughes, D-Draper, were surprised by the audit.

In fact, Cox said he and Hughes have both worried about the state's data consistency and whether it could be improved to track results.

"It's something I've been concerned about," Cox told the Deseret News after Monday's meeting, noting that's "why we asked for the audit in the first place."

"We're really excited about this audit and what came back because it allows us to now go in and make the changes that need to be made and fix it so we can monitor this going forward," Cox said. "We have to have good data."

"Look," Cox added, "if this stuff isn't working, we can have a terrible service delivery system and not spend nearly as much money. We actually want to help people, that's the whole goal of this. And if the dollars aren't being spent in ways that are going to help people, we shouldn't be spending them."

The audit had good timing, Cox said, as the state gears up for the closure of the Road Home's downtown homeless shelter and prepares to open three new homeless resource centers by next July, which will act as a fresh start for the state's homeless system.

"This seemed like the perfect time to figure out first of all what are we doing wrong and what is the best way to do it," Cox said. "The next six months are really important in this space."

Hughes credited auditors with doing a "strong deep dive" to help the state improve the system, but noted he doesn't think anyone is to blame for shortcomings.

"I don't think anyone's doing anything wrong," Hughes said. "I think everyone has performed in the role that they've understood and that they've been tasked to do in an incredible way."

Cox said Utah homeless providers are unmistakably helping save and change lives, but "the problem is we don't know how many and how it's happening exactly." Better data will help "show the public, show policymakers that this is actually working."

"Good work is going on," Hughes said. "We can just do it even better."

Other findings

Monday's audit also found that, because of data inconsistencies, a report that garnered national headlines for Utah's homelessness efforts was based off of "poor data."

That report? It was from 2015, when the state's Department of Workforce Services officials said they had largely achieved their goal to reduce the number of chronically homeless individuals, reporting the population had declined 91 percent since 2005.

However, "due to problems with the data," auditors determined that statistic was "erroneously reported" and "those figures were inaccurate."

"While the data presented shows a significant drop in the number of chronically homeless people, much of the decrease can be attributed to changes made in the methods used to count chronic homelessness," auditors wrote.

For example, the 2015 number came from raw data from the state's Point-in-Time Count — a survey done on a single day each year — while previous years' statistics were annualized numbers. The state also stopped counting people in transitional housing as being chronically homeless, auditors reported.

"It should be noted," auditors added, "that the Department of Workforce Services also recognizes the problems with the past chronic homelessness data and has discontinued using them."

And while the state has "greatly expanded the housing available for the chronically homeless," auditors said Utah "needs to utilize consistent and reliable data to be able to continually evaluate the performance of individual programs and the entire homeless services system."

Therefore, auditors recommend that the State Homeless Coordinating Committee "strengthen" the state's Homeless Management Information System so it can be used "as an effective tool for creating a more results-driven system for serving the homeless."

Auditors said when they showed the system's users the inconsistencies found in the data, "they attributed the data errors to a lack of training for the caseworkers who enter the data," auditors reported.

Auditors also concluded the state needs a "coordinated response" to homelessness, and recommended steps to "unite" the state's agencies, local governments, business community and service providers "behind a common strategy."

While some communities like Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City have prepared for a strategic plan for homeless services, auditors said the "local level oversight is fragmented among different boards and committees."

"To strengthen local planning and accountability, we recommend that the (State Homeless Coordinating Committee) designate local oversight bodies for homeless services in each region of the state," auditors wrote.