Searing Audit Highlights Homeless Services Dysfunction

The Joint Office could not produce simple data on how many people it’s housed—even to the county auditor herself.

Roadside Tent (Blake Benard)

A Multnomah County audit of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, a joint venture between the county and the city of Portland, rattles off a list of alarming deficiencies.

Among the most damning findings by County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk: The office sometimes pays providers months late; it asks them to work before contracts are in place; it adjusts performance measures if providers cannot meet original goals; and it could not produce simple data on how many people it’s housed—even to the county auditor herself.

Read the full audit here.

McGuirk also reported a remarkably high turnover rate among staff (250 have left in recent years) and wrote that because the office could not furnish her with basic placement stats even after “months of trying”, she “decided we would best serve the public interest by not waiting any longer on data requests” and instead issue two reports. The next report, McGuirk says, will be on “data reliability.”

In a response to McGuirk, County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson agreed with many of the findings and assured the auditor that much of the work to correct the deficiencies was “well underway.” . “This report helps validate that we are moving together in the right direction,” Vega Pederson wrote.

The Joint Office, a source of tension between city and county leaders in recent years, has long been marred by high turnover and unclear data about how many people it’s placed in housing.

Last fiscal year, the office had a budget of $255 million, bolstered significantly by the Supportive Housing Services Measure passed by voters in 2020. The county has struggled to use the dollars from that tax on schedule or to to use them as originally promised, as previously reported by WW. Because of that, the regional government Metro, which oversees the tax, is in the process of putting Multnomah County on a corrective plan—an effort that received pushback from the county, emails show.

This spring, Vega Pederson hired a longtime Kaiser Permanente official named Dan Field to run the Joint Office, a move that signaled the new county chair wanted the Joint Office to clean up its act. McGuirk’s audit, however, would suggest that Field still has a lot of work to do.

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