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Austin Set Aside $179 Million For Homelessness In Recent Years, But Auditors Couldn't Find All The Contracts

An encampment of people experiencing homelessness under SH 71 in South Austin
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Encampments have sprung up throughout the city under overpasses and along busy streets.

Austin doesn't effectively keep track of its spending on programs to combat homelessness, according to a city audit out this week.

The City of Austin budgeted $179 million to spend on homelessness between September 2019 and last May, the review said. But it doesn't have a "complete inventory" of the 100-plus agreements from that period, meaning it's not clear if or how all of that money was spent. The audit suggested the city should do a better job of keeping track of the money, which largely comes from the city's taxpayer-funded general fund.

The special audit was commissioned by District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly and District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool, ahead of the city's decision to allocate $100 million in federal relief toward homelessness.

The Office of the City Auditor focused on contracts handled only by Austin Public Health, the city's Housing and Planning Department and the Downtown Austin Community Court. Those three agencies handled 93% of the agreements related to homelessness across all city departments. City auditors said there were limitations that precluded them from nailing down the full number of contracts citywide, because the city doesn't have a unified inventory.

"There is no complete inventory of agreements and associated spending for the City’s homelessness assistance efforts, and the number of these agreements cannot be fully determined due to limitations with available data," the auditor's office wrote.

Auditors noted that this is due to the multidepartmental nature of these contracts. The Office of the City Auditor could account for at least 101 contracts, many of which involved multiple departments that may code and track them differently. The audit said there's no one department that handles all the city's homeless services contracts.

“When agreements are managed by several different departments, it is difficult for the City to know how many agreements it has and their total cost,” the audit said.

City staff will have a chance to respond to the audit at a meeting of the Audit and Finance Committee. A spokesperson told KUT the city hopes the homeless strategy officer will help departments better coordinate agreements going forward.

“As part of this process we are working to identify options in our financial system that will denote all contracts that involve homelessness response so that we can comprehensively track our spending across all city departments,” the spokesperson said.

The audit also provided a cross-section of the spending itself. Nearly 60% of the $179 million budgeted came from the city's general fund, while another 27% came from federal and state grants. The rest of the funding came from the city's infrastructure-minded capital improvements and its enterprise fund, a pot of money that comes from city services like Austin Water or Austin Energy.

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Other cities like Houston have the same problem: They're able to get state and federal funding for housing-related homelessness projects, but the funding for services, which are often recurring costs, ultimately fall to the city to fund.

For its part, the city allocates most of its money to combat homelessness on social services.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler noted those costs at an event Monday with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and suggested the city would use some of the $100 million in federal relief money it's dedicated toward homelessness over the next two years toward service-related costs.

"All of this together is enabling us to do something generationally, to deal with a challenge that has been with us for a long time," he said. "[It's] something we’ve always wanted to do something about but have never had the tools."

The audit also found the city's allocation of money largely hemmed closely to the direction of the Austin City Council, meaning the money largely went directly to necessary services and housing. There were 47 resolutions related to homelessness funding in the timeframe of the audit, with nearly half of them relating directly to emergency services and shelter.

You can read the entire audit here or in the embed below.

Updated: September 24, 2021 at 1:29 PM CDT
This story has been updated with a response from the City of Austin.
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