City Audit Says Austin Doesn't Effectively Help People Get Out Of Homelessness – Or Measure Progress

Feb 27, 2019

An audit out today of homeless service providers in Austin says the city doesn't always hold them accountable.

The report from the city’s Audit and Finance Committee found nine of the city’s largest contracts in 2017 met city benchmarks for service only about half the time. The audit is the final one of a four-part review of the city's response to homelessness.

Assistant City Auditor Andrew Keegan says some goals were missed because of funding cuts, but the audit also found some of those contracts were amended to lower benchmarks. 

For example, Austin Public Health amended one contract four times to lower the minimum number of clients served. The audit said those amendments were "not holding service providers accountable for poor performance." Austin Public Health told auditors the changes were a result of a typo, though Keegan said several contracts it reviewed were amended in a similar way.

"What we were a little concerned about was that, over the term of the contract, contracts were frequently amended and performance goals were lowered," Keegan told KUT. "Our concern was the transparency around these amendments. They are public ... but they don't get the same level of discussion that the initial contract would."

At a presentation of the report's findings Wednesday to the Audit and Finance Committee, Austin City Council Member Alison Alter suggested the city manager's office find a better way to keep track of those amendments. 

"For instance, in this case, we might have learned something sooner, if we’d been made aware of those performance goals changing," Alter said. "That would’ve been relevant for us understanding how we’re tackling this broader issue."

The audit also found service providers weren't necessarily serving the right people who may be at risk of eviction or homelessness.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development considers four-person households making $13,000 a year to be the most at-risk of homelessness in Austin. But the audit found less than half the people seeking legal help, temporary rentals and assistance with utility bills met that threshold in 2017.

Most four-person households served by Austin Public Health earned up to $50,000 a year.

"In Austin, a family of four making about $13,000 is the most at-risk," Keegan said. "So, if they’re the most at-risk, but we’re allowing people with much higher incomes to participate in these programs, then we’re not really targeting the people who are most at-risk."

The audit also found the city can't always track whether a person returns to homelessness because not all providers are using a uniform reporting system. Some providers use electronic records, while others use paper records.

Services themselves, the audit found, need to also be balanced with better case management. A national study looking at Austin found half of all clients who received case management at the ARCH in 2017 got into housing – while fewer than 1 percent of clients who didn't have their cases managed got into housing. On top of that, many people trying to get out of homelessness may have multiple case managers who don't necessarily communicate with one another. The auditor's office suggests having a single point of contact or a centralized system to cut down on redundancy and confusion.

Ann Howard of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition told the committee a scarcity of resources on behalf of providers is partly to blame.

"We would love more staff, we would love to be able to have people in the programs longer, so that we are rock solid that that family will never need our help again," Howard said. "But we don’t have that luxury in Austin. We’re trying to stabilize and get to the next client."

Howard says providers are in conversations with Amazon Web Services – one of the world’s largest cloud-computing firms – to help form what she called a “data lake” to share client information securely in a single repository.

Still, the review touted the city's efforts to combat homelessness and expand affordability in Austin, citing the November bond for affordable housing, the Austin City Council's increase in city money for providers and efforts to end homelessness among veterans. 

"It's not all doom and gloom. It's still a significant problem. It's not solved in any stretch of the imagination," Keegan said. "But it is being worked on. Smart people are doing their best and trying everything they can to address this issue."

This story has been updated.