Multnomah County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk has taken the unusual step of halting an audit of the placement of homeless Portlanders into housing after her team found data from the Joint Office of Homeless Services to be “not reliable.”
The upshot: Auditors found that the Joint Office may have overstated the number of people for whom it found permanent housing by more than 20% over the past two years.
County officials pushed back, although they acknowledged issues with their data. They said, however, the overstatement was half what McGuirk found. The Portland Mercury first reported McGuirk’s findings.
Reliable data on the work of battling homelessness will be increasingly important as the Joint Office ramps up spending of the 10-year, $2.5 billion Metro homeless services ballot measure passed by voters in 2020.
Earlier this year, McGuirk’s team set out to determine whether the Joint Office was getting good value for taxpayers’ money when it paid contractors for permanent housing for homeless Portlanders. Her office acted after hearing reports of Sandy Studios, an apartment building where a partial ceiling collapse revealed black mold in the walls.
Her audit team requested data showing placements made in fiscal and 2020 and 2021. The information the Joint Office provided, however, was not useful.
“Among Joint Office program participants that were placed in housing, approximately 60% were missing address data or had address data that were not actual addresses,’” McGuirk wrote in a Dec. 1 memo to Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Joint Office director Marc Jolin.
Without addresses, there was no way for auditors to determine where people were actually living or whether their placements were adequate. “In our evaluation of the data we received, the data were not reliable for our audit purposes,” McGuirk wrote. “We would be unable to draw reliable conclusions and extrapolate findings to the larger population. For this reason, we have chosen to end the audit.”
Beyond the missing data, her team discovered another problem: The Joint Office was classifying people as having been moved into permanent housing who had merely begun the placement process.
“We found that the data in the file did not support the number of permanent housing placements the Joint Office reported for FY 2020 and FY 2021,” McGuirk wrote. “This is because the Joint Office has been reporting on project start date as representing placement into housing.”
In other words, auditors thought the Joint Office was overstating its accomplishments—by about 1,000 placements per year. (For fiscal year 2020, the Joint Office reported finding permanent housing for 5,130 people; for fiscal 2021, the number is 4,010. So the overstatement McGuirk cites is about 22%.)
“The Joint Office’s process for compiling the quarterly and year-end permanent housing placement reports has consistently used the project start date field as a proxy for housing placement,” McGuirk wrote. “This is problematic because some people who enter a housing program do not end up entering into housing.”
McGuirk noted that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided guidance in 2018 to housing authorities across the county stating that it preferred they measure when people actually moved into housing rather than when they started the process.
When McGuirk met with county leaders to discuss her concerns, they told her that they had explained in the glossary of their quarterly and annual reports that their numbers included program start date data, not just permanent housing.
That explanation did not satisfy her.
“Management needs to be sure it is reporting data in a way that faithfully represents what the data appear to represent, and they have not communicated consistently that project start date is different than placement into housing,” she wrote in her memo.
In separate responses to McGuirk’s memo, Kafoury and Jolin offered explanations for the data issues and disagreed with the auditor’s numbers. They noted that the historical division of responsibilities between the city (whose Housing Bureau has been responsible for single homeless men) and the county (responsible for families) meant that some data was kept by the Housing Bureau and some by the county’s Department of County Human Services. It was only earlier this year that the Joint Office took over responsibilities for both.
Jolin noted that his office shifted the way it counted placements on July 1, changing from the previous metric of when a person made contact and started the process to when the person was actually housed.
“Plans to update our housing metric, starting with the first-quarter report this year, were in place well before the audit began,” he wrote. “And they underscore our commitment to quality improvement and more rigorous data reporting. The Auditor’s office was aware of that imminent timeline, yet that was not referenced or acknowledged in the most recent version of your letter.”
Jolin explained that transitioning to the system of reporting permanent placements, as HUD suggested in 2018, was complicated.
“We acknowledge and share your concern about the amount of time it has taken to fully operationalize the shift to the new measure,” Jolin wrote. “We faced particular challenges with the community’s data platform and the work needed to adopt a new reporting mechanism.”
As to McGuirk’s assertion that the Joint Office may have overstated placements by 1,000 people a year, Jolin disagreed.
He got his staff to rerun numbers for 2021 and found the overstatement to be more like 10%, half of what McGuirk found.
“Some of the perceived gap between enrollments and move-in dates could reflect a single missing data point in someone’s case record, rather than a missing lease or rent payment,” Jolin said. “And as providers adapt, those data-entry issues can be expected to improve.”
McGuirk told Kafoury and Jolin she will now shift her focus to a more basic issue.
“Due to the data issues my office become aware of during the initial stage of the living conditions audit,” she wrote, “I am obligated to initiate an audit of Joint Office information systems.”