Who really lost that $3.7 million?
Homeless service providers packed a city council hearing last night hoping to defend their reputations after a federal audit required the city to return $3.7 million slated for homeless services.
The big payback was not the hearing’s subject—but it’s been front and center in City Hall for months as city officials blame the federal government (or, occasionally, cast aspersions on the grant recipients) to explain how a city that never audits its own agencies could make such an expensive mistake.
“The blame is not on the city of Baltimore and it’s not on the providers,” said Councilwoman Helen Holton, (8th District), who chairs the Budget and Appropriations Committee. “Much of the blame falls on the federal government.”
Holton’s comment echoed that of Kevin Lindamood, CEO of Health Care for the Homeless, who told the Sun last month that “The resources were being pushed out the door very quickly without clear guidance.”
The same story quoted Kate Briddell, director of Baltimore’s homeless services program, who sent a letter back to HUD disputing the audit. “Guidance was negligible, at best,” she wrote.
Mayor Stepanie Rawlings-Blake herself has said the same. “These were stimulus funds and the administration wanted those funds moved quickly and at times were vague about the manner they wanted records kept,” she said according to WYPR.
This is not how the Inspector General sees it, a point emphasized in a March 4 letter to Olivia Farrow, director of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, from Charles Halm, HUD’s director of Community Planning and Development. The letter specifically points to city service providers (called subrecipients) that did understand how to account for the money:
HUD regularly issued guidance in the form of notices, FAQs and webcasts. HUD found that the City’s subrecipients who were in compliance with the HPRP program had made a diligent effort to review HUD’s guidance and design its program to guarantee compliance. This directly contradicts the City’s audit response that HUD’s “guidance was negligible, at best.”
Those service providers did this without the city’s help though, the letter says:
The Office of the Inspector General found that the City was noncompliant in its oversight responsibilities. The City could not demonstrate or provide any evidence to the OIG auditors that it provided proper oversight and monitoring of this program. The City could also not demonstrate any proper accounting of the HPRP funds through both programmatic and financial systems. In fact, had it not been for the United Way of Central Maryland’s accounting, the City’s repayment would likely be higher than it is.
At issue were housing choice vouchers (commonly known as Section 8). The city promised homeless services providers vouchers for their clients, but the vouchers never materialized in great numbers, leaving the non-profit providers to cover rents for people with little or no income. The letter continues:
The Field Office review found many clients were placed in market rate housing with no permanent housing assistance forthcoming. This leads HUD to question what happened to these clients when their temporary rental assistance came to an end.
The Mayor’s Office of Human Services was supposed to check on the service providers to make sure the money was being spent in accordance with the federal guidelines. It simply did not happen, the Inspector General found. Take the example of St. Vincent de Paul, which was ordered to return $523,229 of its $1,045,303 grant:
In the case of St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP), there was no documentation of the required 90-day recertification. Of the clients that were initially determined eligible by SVDP, the lack of recertification of eligibility resulted in a repayment of almost 60% of the financial assistance provided to those clients. The lack of recertification also led to the repayment of most of the remaining financial assistance because an eligibility screening took place only once. In some cases, financial assistance was not provided until after a 90-day recertification would be required; in such cases, none of the financial assistance was eligible. Had knowledgeable City staff monitored this subrecipient early in the program, this problem could have been corrected and the program brought into compliance.
The others are much like that. HUD’s inspector general found no fraud, just a near-universal inability to comply with the guidelines.
Which were, indeed, made available.
HUD said it was happy that the Mayor’s Office of Human Services had begun to get its office in order: “Nonetheless, HUD remains concerned about MOHS’ capacity to carry out its grant management and oversight responsibilities for HUD’s programs for special needs populations.”
At the hearing yesterday, council members asked Kate Briddell, who oversees homeless services, seemingly simple questions.
“I don’t mean to be facetious in any way,” Councilman James Kraft (1st District) began. “What year are we in, in the 10 year plan to end homelessness.”
Biddell’s answer did not state a single year. “Slow down a minute,” Kraft said after trying to follow Briddell’s fast talk. Then he followed up: how many homeless people live in Baltimore?
That drew Adrienne Bridenstein, who is in charge of the Ten-Year Plan, to Briddell’s side. “One of the things we haven’t figured out how to do,” she said, “is, how do we track our progress.
“In another six months,” she said, “we’ll have something substantial that we can point to.”