Multnomah County Chair Candidates React to Damaging Auditor’s Report

Nobody is happy that the Joint Office of Homeless Services overstated placements of homeless Portlanders.

Multnomah County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk reported last week that she’d been forced to halt an audit of the placements of homeless Portlanders into permanent housing because the data was “not reliable.”

McGuirk found that the city and county’s Joint Office of Homeless Services, which is responsible for finding people housing, didn’t have addresses for 60% of those it claimed to have placed.

More importantly, McGuirk’s audit team found, the Joint Office overstated the number of people for whom it had found permanent housing in the past two years by more than 20%, or 2,000 people in total. That’s because the Joint Office counted people who started the housing process, rather than those who actually moved in, a practice McGuirk termed “problematic.”

County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Joint Office director Marc Jolin explained that the county only recently gained full control of the underlying data and took issue with the scale of McGuirk’s conclusions—but acknowledged a problem.

We asked the four candidates competing to succeed Kafoury to respond to McGuirk’s report:

Sharon Meieran, Multnomah County commissioner, District 1 (West and inner Southeast Portland)

I deeply appreciate Auditor McGuirk’s focusing on and elevating the issue of data. Her findings are concerning and important. Effective data collection, management, and communication is the foundation for planning, measuring progress, and being held accountable for all the work we do at Multnomah County, including the tens of millions of taxpayer dollars we’re spending on homeless services.

I’ve raised questions and advocated for a robust data collection strategy at the county, and the auditor’s report supports my questions and concerns. While I am disturbed by the findings, I’m encouraged that these discrepancies were discovered and brought forward. We need accurate, meaningful data, transparently communicated, to be effective in our work, and to deserve the public’s trust. I look forward to the auditor’s deeper dive.

Shannon Singleton, former executive director of JOIN; currently adviser on equity and racial justice to Gov. Kate Brown

The answer is simple—the county needs to change the way it calculates the number of people housed to ensure that we have reliable data to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in our homeless services system. The auditor’s concerns around the lack of reliable data are valid, but this can’t be laid at the feet of one office or elected official—every current commissioner must own that this happened on their watch.

This isn’t a new problem, as I identified data issues for county leadership years ago. The auditor’s report highlights why it is critical that we have a county CEO that has a micro-level expert understanding of how to approach moving people off our streets and into housing.

Lori Stegmann, Multnomah County commissioner, District 4 (outer East Portland and Gresham)

I appreciate the auditor’s diligence in looking into our most pressing challenge right now—getting people off the streets and on the path to permanent housing again. Transparency is critical, and being as clear as possible is key to effective implementation of programs to build and maintain trust with our residents. Her findings highlight gaps in reporting that need to be corrected. I agree that the delineation between “project start date” and placement into housing are two different things and are important to distinguish in order to measure our progress towards our Built for Zero goal.

Jessica Vega-Pederson, Multnomah County commissioner, District 3 (outer Southeast Portland)

We need an accurate accounting of our successes and failures in getting people into housing. The public entrusts us with addressing this issue, and we need reliable data to hold ourselves and our partners accountable. Collecting this data is complex—it includes input from different jurisdictions and nonprofits into a system that’s been active for less than a year. Having said that, the quality of this data is clearly inadequate. As chair, I will hold the JOHS and the service providers accountable for getting this right so we can focus on helping people find safer, healthier housing options. The reason we have an auditor is to bring these issues to light, and I welcome the auditor’s assistance in looking at the office’s information systems.