No way to know if $100 million spent fighting homelessness has had any effect, audit says

Dec 12, 2018, 12:08 PM

Utah’s Homeless Coordinating Committee spent an estimated $100 million last year in their fight to get help for the people living on our streets. But according to a new audit, there is no way to know if any of the money has made any difference.

The audit, conducted by the Legislative Auditor General’s Office, says that problems with the ways the state has and managed data on homelessness make it impossible to accurately assess whether the state’s efforts are actually helping people find homes off the streets.

But as terrifying as the report sounds, the people behind the Homeless Coordinating Committee say that this is “exactly what we hoped.”

KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic spoke with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, chairman of the state’s Homeless Coordinating Committee, and Audit Supervisor Jim Behunin about what this audit really means, and the story behind the headlines, they assured them the audit isn’t as dire as it sounds.

The Homeless Coordinating Committee requested the audit

Homeless Coordinating Committee

File photo of a volunteer handing a homeless man a new pair of socks the annual Point-In-Time Count of the homeless population in Salt Lake City on Feb. 2, 2013. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

“We asked them to do this audit,” Cox told KSL.

The report wasn’t brought on because of any failures of the program, he says. Instead, it was a survey the committee themselves requested so that they could see, in Cox’s words: “what we are doing right, what we’re doing wrong, and what we should be doing differently.”

Cox says that the audit was requested after he and the outgoing House Speaker Greg Hughes had a conversation about whether they were tracking their results effectively.

“As we started to look at the data,” Cox told Dave & Dujanovic, “we felt like we weren’t.”

The data that caused the problem according to the Auditor General’s report, was a 2015 report by the state’s Department of Workforce Services that claimed that the homeless population of Utah had gone down by 91 percent in the past ten years.

The report gave Utah positive headlines around the country – but those headlines soured shortly afterward when the American Enterprise Institute released an article calling it nothing more than “fiction”.

That 91 percent drop Utah had been boasting about, they said, was based on inconsistent data that gave inaccurate results; and the Auditor General, after looking at the stats again, had to admit they were right.

The drop had more to do with changes in how the state was counting heads than it did with their battle against homelessness. And that meant that they really couldn’t say for sure whether all that work Utah has done to clean up the streets is actually having any effect.

“We’re spending a lot of money,” Audit Supervisor Jim Behunin told KSL. “We just want to make sure that, at the end of the day, it’s doing some good.”

The Auditor General’s report

Homeless outside the Salt Lake City Library

People try and stay warm as they sit outside the Main Library in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. (Photo: Steve Griffin, Deseret News)

That, as it turned out, wasn’t a question the audit could answer. As Behunin explained:

“We went out to find out which programs are doing well and which aren’t doing quite well, and we just couldn’t make heads or tails of the data to the point that we could say: ‘Yeah, this a program that’s doing well and we need to put more resources toward that strategy.’”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Homeless Coordinating Committee isn’t making a difference. It just means that the way they’ve been collecting data hasn’t been consistent enough to prove it.

Some programs, Cox and Behunin say, do have clear enough data for them to definitively say they’re making a difference in people’s lives.

Cox pointed to the Sober Living Recovery Program, which helps people coming out of homelessness who have had treatment get into inexpensive homes.

“We have good data on that,” Cox said. “We know it’s working. It’s getting people into housing. It’s getting them off the streets.”

Behunin, for his part, pointed to Operation Rio Grande, the state’s multi-agency collaboration to make the Rio Grande neighborhood of Salt Lake City a safer place to live.

“We actually see that as kind of a template for what we should be doing state-wide,” Behunin said, highlighting their clear metrics for monitoring success and public disclosure of information as things the state needs to imitate in their other strategies.

Cox, for his part, is still convinced that the program is working, even if their data isn’t organized to prove it. “We know we’re helping people,” Cox insisted. “I can give you pages of examples of people who were in homelessness and are not now.”

He emphasizes that they want to make sure that there’s a consistent system in place to make sure that they know which programs are working and that they’re making life easier for the people society often leaves in the lurch.

“We have to get them off the streets. We have to have their mental health needs met, get them over their addictions, and get them a place to live,” Cox told KSL. “If we can get to them early, we can get them the treatment they need.”

Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on KSL Newsradio. Users can find the show on the KSL Newsradio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

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No way to know if $100 million spent fighting homelessness has had any effect, audit says