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Homeless program audit finds low investment in permanent housing in Yakima County

Dec. 7, 2022 Updated Wed., Dec. 7, 2022 at 7:53 p.m.

By Kate Smith Yakima Herald-Republic

Yakima County’s homeless program spent more than $13 million on contracted homeless services from 2019 to 2021 but invested less than 1% of resources into permanent housing, according to a new report by the Washington State Auditor’s Office.

The report, which also reviewed homeless programs in Seattle, Spokane and Snohomish County, recommended local governments adopt a more data-driven approach to distributing funding and better monitor service providers.

Esther Magasis, director of the Yakima County Department of Human Services, said Yakima County’s review period was more truncated compared to that of the other communities included in the audit.

The county began managing Yakima’s homeless program in 2019, so the report reviewed the program from that point on, while other jurisdictions had a full five-year review from 2017 to 2021. Yakima Valley Conference of Governments administered the program prior to 2019.

Yakima County’s review period was also affected by the newness of the Human Services department – established in January 2020 – along with staffing challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic, Magasis said.

Since then, the department has hired an accountant and managers to supervise the homeless program.

“The period that’s being audited looks really different (from) the program now, even though it was such a recent time that they looked at,” Magasis said.

Still, she said the results of the review were helpful as the county looks at ways to evaluate and improve its efforts.

Permanent housing

Yakima County put less than 1% annually toward permanent housing from 2019 to 2021, though experts recommend investing in permanent housing, according to the report.

The county planned to spend more on permanent housing, the report said, but two providers applied to offer the service and only one of them, Yakima Neighborhood Health Services, qualified to receive funding. The report said the department hadn’t determined why so few providers applied but thought it may be because there are fewer providers overall in the region.

Magasis said Yakima County’s funds were only divided into two categories for the audit – supportive services and permanent housing – while other communities separated their funds into a variety of categories. The graph for Yakima’s program would look more varied if it were broken out into different categories, she said.

“When you look at that supportive services line, that supportive services line encompasses every other program that is not permanent supportive housing,” she said. “Just like for the other communities that have it in their graphs, that means emergency shelter, that means rapid rehousing, and that means transitional housing, that means all the other services that we provide.”

The report looked at services including coordinated entry, outreach, permanent housing, supportive services such as counseling or resume writing, and shelters for youth and young adults.

Splitting supportive services into more specific categories would not affect the line that shows the amount spent for permanent supportive housing – less than 1% throughout the review period.

Magasis said the county doesn’t put a lot toward permanent supportive housing in the community, in part because of grant restrictions and limits on local funding.

Lee Murdock, director of the Homeless Network of Yakima County, said the report shows that the county’s program should focus on prevention and creating housing units, instead of just emergency response.

“There needs to be more investment in both prevention and rapid rehousing, whether it’s permanent supportive housing or new housing units,” Murdock said. “People are spending a long time in shelters because there’s nowhere for them to be transitioned into.”

Murdock said Next Step Housing, which operates the Bicycle Apartments and other supportive housing developments throughout Yakima, is one of the county’s largest permanent supportive housing providers, followed by Neighborhood Health.

Limiting funds

Magasis said funding restrictions contributed to Yakima County’s lower investment into permanent housing compared to supportive services like emergency shelter in its early years of managing the county’s homeless program.

Grant restrictions limited the programs the county could invest in, she said.

The largest funding pot for the homeless program is the Consolidated Homeless Grant through the state Department of Commerce, which provides about $2.5 million to $3 million in a two-year grant cycle. Magasis said local 2163 funds provide another $1 million annually. The report didn’t include a look at federal HOME funds, which are dedicated to affordable housing.

The Consolidated Homelessness Grant has restrictions, but some does go to permanent supportive housing, Magasis said.

The local 2163 dollars are flexible and could go toward permanent housing if allocated that way, she said, but they are currently going toward shelters like Camp Hope, Rod’s House and the YWCA’s domestic violence shelter. Shifting the funding toward permanent housing would mean less for the programs already being funded, she said.

“I think it makes sense to use 2163 potentially for permanent supportive housing, at least in part, but I want to have the data to help inform those decisions,” Magasis said. “When we talk about what we could do better in Yakima County, one of the things I think we can do better and it’s been a goal of our department is to focus more on trying to be more data driven in the selection of what types of projects get funding.”

Using data

One recommendation made in the report is that homeless programs adopt a more data-driven approach to distribute funding.

Yakima County collects performance data for the state’s Homeless Management Information System, but the report said the county department didn’t use the data to evaluate program outcomes or discuss performance with providers.

The Yakima County homeless program officials said they only looked at past performance results if providers decided to include this information in their application for funding renewal, according to the report.

Magasis said one issue the county is facing is a lack of consistent training around data input and analysis.

“The issue that we have is that there’s not there’s not been consistent training to our providers on how to use (the Homeless Management Information System), and so sometimes when we go to pull reports, the data that comes out isn’t always coherent or consistent, and sometimes there are gaps that are confusing,” she said.

Efforts are being made to remedy that, she said.

Murdock said there is plenty of data to be used, and plenty of ways to use it. Looking at a complete inventory of services offered in Yakima County would be helpful, she said, which is something that’s already being looked at.

The county could also look at how many people are at risk of losing housing, and how many are entering the emergency response system, how long they’re staying and how they’re exiting, Murdock said.

“How can data be used?” Lots of ways, she said. “We’re drowning in data.”

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