In a memo sent Wednesday to county officials, Multnomah County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk raised concerns that the Joint Office of Homelessness (JOHS) may be misleading the public on the number of unhoused individuals that have found housing through its programs.
Those programs include services offered through a wide number of organizations that contract with JOHS, like Central City Concern, Transition Projects, and Do Good Multnomah, which offer everything from rent assistance to placement in transitional or low-income housing.
In August, the auditor's office kicked off an investigation into living conditions for people who have received rental assistance through the county. In their research, auditor staff found that JOHS had been using the number of people who enrolled in housing placement programs to measure the number of people JOHS has successfully placed into housing. McGuirk found this alarming.
"This is problematic because some people who enter a housing program do not end up entering into housing," wrote McGuirk.
McGuirk suggested that JOHS may be falsely inflating the number of people it claims to place in permanent housing by relying on program enrollment data instead of more concrete information, like the date individuals report moving into permanent housing through a JOHS program.
"Management needs to be sure it is reporting data in a way that faithfully represents what the data appears to represent," she wrote. "Information about housing and homeless services is of significant public interest; it is critical that discussions about Joint Office data are as clear as possible. Generally accepted government auditing standards require me to report this as a significant internal control deficiency."
This isn't news to JOHS. According to the joint city-county department, JOHS identified this issue "well before the audit began," and has since updated the way it will collect this data going forward.
"Your letter highlights an opportunity for improving our housing placement metrics that we had already identified and have been working diligently to achieve," wrote JOHS Director Marc Jolin in response to McGuirk's memo.
Jolin explained that JOHS has since introduced new metrics to track the number of unhoused people who get into housing through JOHS programs. That measurement is based on two new sources of data: The move-in date for people enrolled in these programs and the housing outcomes for people who may have stayed in county shelters or transitional housing but didn't enter permanent housing through a JOHS program. Organizations who run housing placement programs through JOHS don't currently keep consistent records of either of these data points.
Jolin noted that until this year, the number of housing program enrollments to track JOHS' ability to house people was "the most reliable" data available to them. While JOHS is five years old, the office only retained ownership of the management system that tracks housing placements earlier this year, allowing it to change what data is requires providers to collect.
JOHS first began collecting these two new data point for its latest quarterly report, published this week. Yet, Jolin noted that many service providers are still adjusting to the new data collection requirement. Jolin wrote that he had detailed this lag time and shift in data collection to McGuirk's office during her audit process, yet didn't see it reflected in her critical memo.
"We believe the fact that we were pursuing this data improvement on our own, and have already shared it—work that began well before you contacted us—should be highlighted as an encouraging sign of accountability," wrote Jolin.
McGuirk said that, while she was aware of these data changes, she found that JOHS had first mentioned changing their data collected metrics to more accurately reflect the number of housed clients in 2018, after it was recommended by US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to start tracking move-in dates.
"We are concerned that it is now three years from HUD’s guidance," wrote McGuirk, "and the Joint Office is still not confident in using that field for reporting." To be clear, JOHS did include the "move-in date" field in its quarterly report published this week.
In her own response letter to McGuirk's memo, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury stood behind Jolin and JOHS. Kafoury wrote that JOHS had wanted to update its data collection metrics earlier, but was delayed due to the past year of crises impacting unhoused individuals—ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to extreme weather events.
The auditor's memo comes as JOHS faces heightened scrutiny for its work to lessen the impact of homelessness as the Portland metro region sees an influx of homeless camps in public spaces.
In recent months, local developers who've grown irritated with the city's visible homeless population have questioned the efficacy of JOHS' programs, and accused service providers who sit on JOHS' oversight board of unfairly taking advantage of taxpayer dollars to support their businesses. These arguments have, in part, fueled a campaign financed by Portland developers called People for Portland, which has worked to poke holes in the city and county's response to homelessness.
In her letter, Kafoury urged McGuirk to continue working on her office's original living conditions audit, which was paused after the auditor's staff encountered the data concerns.
McGuirk said that's not possible due to the "data reliability issues."
"At some point in the future, I may be able to revisit this audit once we are confident in the data in the [data management system] and have been able to secure information we need from providers," wrote McGuirk in an email to the Mercury.
Instead, McGuirk has directed her office to begin a new audit into JOHS' information systems.