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Report: City lacks complete list of homelessness agreements

Wednesday, September 22, 2021 by Jo Clifton

The Office of the City Auditor reports that City Council initiated 47 resolutions, ordinances and other orders related to alleviating homelessness between September 2018 and May 2021. As a result of those directives, the city entered into at least 101 agreements, mostly with nonprofit organizations, to provide various homelessness services. Some of these agreements are still in the process of being implemented.

Auditors did the research and wrote the report in response to a request from Council members Mackenzie Kelly and Leslie Pool, who both served on the Council Audit & Finance Committee. In the request, Kelly and Pool asked which resolutions from Council relate to homelessness, which agreements relate to homelessness, and whether city spending aligns with Council direction on the issue between September 2018 and May 2021.

Over the fiscal years 2019 to 2021, auditors found that the city budgeted $179 million to combat homelessness. Auditors reported that 59 percent of the money for homelessness came from the city’s General Fund, while 27 percent came from state and federal funding. The remainder came from the Capital Improvements Program and enterprise funds.

The auditors noted that there are about 15 city departments involved in homelessness assistance efforts, but the three most responsible for managing those issues are Austin Public Health, the Housing and Planning Department and the Downtown Austin Community Court.

Auditors found the majority of homelessness assistance agreements were managed by Austin Public Health, which reported 74 such agreements. The Housing and Planning Department had 17 agreements and the community court had a total of 10.

However, the audit team that worked on the report said they were unable to determine whether the city had entered into agreements that were not found during their research. “Multiple city departments manage agreements related to homelessness assistance,” they wrote, “but there is no single department responsible for tracking all agreements related to homelessness assistance.” When auditors perform a regular audit, their standard operating procedure is to arrive at conclusions and make recommendations. But in the case of a special report, they do not offer conclusions or recommendations.

Auditors did find that overall spending on the homelessness issue generally aligns with directions given by Council. The team selected five Council resolutions to study to see if they could determine whether agreements with those nonprofits aligned with Council direction. All five resolutions were managed by Austin Public Health and resulted in 10 separate agreements.

Auditors wrote, “Six of the 10 agreements had associated spending which aligned with Council direction. The remaining four agreements are in the process of being finalized or were recently created and do not yet have associated spending as of the time of this review.”

The audit team noted, “Not all spending action can be directly traced to specific guidance from Council. City departments have a level of discretion to allocate spending that is aligned with their department mission. Overall, departments appear committed to the city’s strategic direction on economic opportunity and affordability.”

Pool told the Austin Monitor, “We have spent at least $179 million on our homelessness efforts” since 2018, “and it is clear the city of Austin cannot sustain this effort by ourselves. We must have active participation from others, including the private sector and other governmental entities.” She said she really appreciated Travis County stepping forward with $110 million to deal with homelessness last week.

Pool added that she was not surprised to learn that the city does not know how many contracts it has to deal with homelessness. “This isn’t new and to the extent this is a pattern, I’m glad it’s been highlighted again,” she concluded.

Update:  “We welcome the Auditor’s findings that the City’s investments to address the homelessness crisis align with Council direction and priorities, and that individual departments are committed to the City’s overall strategy to tackle this important issue,” A spokesperson for the city noted. “This year the City hired a Homeless Strategy Officer to coordinate the City’s efforts across multiple City departments to ensure a seamless approach and response, and that work continues. 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.”

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