Audit says it’s impossible to gauge the success of Utah’s homelessness programs because of bad or useless data

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Crystal Yllnas is helped by volunteer LeAnne Heagren as she decides on what services to access during Salt Lake City's Project Homeless Connect at the Salt Palace Convention Center on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. The event brought together community volunteers to provide services for individuals and families in need or experiencing homelessness. More than 800 community volunteers and 90 service providers connect those in need with more than 200 services.

Utah maintains a wealth of information on its programs for the homeless, according to a new audit, but that information is of little use to evaluate whether the programs are actually working.

In a report released Monday, the Legislative Auditor General’s Office wrote that poor data management, unclear goals, uncorrected errors and inconsistent methods for counting the number of chronically homeless in the state left auditors unable to answer the questions they set out to study — such as which state programs are successful at placing individuals in housing.

“Although we found no shortage of information about client activities and the services provided to them,” the audit states, “we did not find the data to be of much use in terms of monitoring program outcomes.”

House and Senate leaders heard a presentation on the audit Monday during a meeting of the Legislative Audit Subcommittee. Their debate focused on potential improvements in data tracking, with Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, suggesting that funding could be cut off or reduced until service providers change their ways.

“Maybe this has to come back to the Legislature stopping fund flow until we get the answers and the outcomes — or diminish[ing] the fund flow," Niederhauser said. “Those are some of the things that I think this calls for.”

Monday’s audit is the third in a series requested by lawmakers on the subject of homelessness in Utah. If follows an October 2017 report on the cost of Utah’s homeless programs and another in May on the security and management of shelters operated by The Road Home.

The first report on costs found a price tag of $81 million for homeless services in Utah, with the bulk of that paid by the federal government. And roughly half that figure was indirect expenses on programs like policing and jails, auditors wrote, which are inflated by homelessness.

The May report on facilities management by The Road Home flagged issues of lax security and drug use at shelters, which endangered residents and deterred members of the homeless community from participating in support services.

In the latest audit, researchers frequently cited errors and confusion within the state’s data and an overall lack of coordination between the various agencies and entities involved with the homeless population. Enrollment and exit information for various programs was also misleading or misreported, the audit states, frustrating the researchers' attempts to track recidivism of homeless individuals.

“After finding significant problems with the data, we lost confidence in the accuracy of our results,” the auditors wrote. “Therefore, we could not complete the Legislature’s request for program-level performance data.”

The audit recommends that clear and measurable goals be established for homeless services, that data be regularly audited and that providers be trained to better manage information. It also calls for a state coordinating council on homelessness to be empowered for oversight, planning and accountability.

“Before Utah can evaluate the success of its homeless-service system," the audit states, “it must first define what success is.”

James Behunin, the audit supervisor, told lawmakers Monday that the efficacy of homeless services has likely improved with the coordination of the state’s Operation Rio Grande program and ongoing efforts to decentralize and relocate the state’s primary shelters. But the inconsistency of records — which he said previously focused more on payment reimbursement than client success — impede long-term comparisons.

“I would venture to say that today it’s much better than it was a couple years ago,” Behunin said. “The problem is, as auditors, we’ve got to look at the history.”

In a response included in the audit, Jonathan Hardy, housing and community development director for the Department of Workforce Services, agreed with the audit’s recommendations and said steps have been taken to implement performance measures and monitor service providers.

Hardy said the department is committed to working toward continual improvements and would prioritize discussion of the audit’s findings at upcoming meetings.

“We stand ready to help in the policy discussion to align all stakeholders to common objectives of addressing homelessness in Utah,” Hardy wrote.

Spencer Cox, Utah’s lieutenant governor, said he welcomed the audit’s findings. The state has taken a more active role in homeless services, he said, and is in a position to make changes ahead of the launch of new resource centers next year.

“We want to know what’s working and what’s not working,” Cox said. “We feel like we have this six-month window to start over, to reimagine, and to recalibrate what we do.”