DENVER – A lack of a cohesive overall strategy along with unclear authority and understaffing hinders the city’s ability to comprehensively address homelessness or measure the effectiveness of its efforts, according to a new audit from Denver Auditor Timothy M. O’Brien, CPA.
“Homelessness is a high priority issue for Denver,” Auditor O’Brien said. “However, we could be using our resources more effectively with possibly better results if we had a comprehensive citywide strategy, defined leadership and more specific goals to define success.”
The audit team found gaps in Denver’s Road Home’s collaborative efforts and staff resources that hamper its ability to address homelessness. At the time of the audit, Denver’s Road Home lacked a strategic plan specific to homelessness and had no communitywide performance metrics.
Road Home’s collaboration with its partners was also fragmented. The audit team found uncertainty over who is ultimately responsible for leading strategic planning and policy within the city on homelessness.
“The Mayor’s Office tells me the mayor is planning to make substantive changes to address the need for better organization and I think that’s a step in the right direction,” Auditor O’Brien said. “I am pleased to hear the Mayor’s Office is ready to make improvements through the new Department of Housing and Homelessness after this audit and we will follow up to see if those changes address the concerns expressed in the audit.”
Denver’s homelessness problem is complex and involves the lack of affordable housing, prevalence of mental health issues in homeless populations and existence of data-related challenges.
About 32% of Colorado’s homeless population is concentrated in Denver. In 2018, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative identified 3,445 individuals experiencing homelessness in Denver. Around $37 million was budgeted for homeless services in 2018, and in 2019, Denver increased that to more than $51 million.
Denver’s Road Home is making some strides to address homelessness by convening committees and forging partnerships with other divisions within Denver Human Services, other city agencies, nonprofits and service providers. However, these efforts are not organized and supported by a strategic plan with specific goals to direct homelessness efforts. These collaborative efforts could also be more effective with communitywide data-sharing tools to track performance and inform decision-making.
“Millions of dollars won’t help solve the problem if we aren’t tracking data and aligning our policies from organization to organization to support the use of the city’s many resources,” Auditor O’Brien said.
Despite the many organizations working to find solutions for homelessness, the audit team could not determine whether Road Home has clear authority to fully lead the city’s efforts.
Prior to its move from the Mayor’s Office to the Office of Economic Development, the Office of Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere, also known as HOPE, developed a short-term action item list related to homelessness and housing. Thirteen agencies were assigned responsibility for implementing the plan’s 33 action items. Ten of those items were specific to homelessness, and Road Home took a lead role on six of them and a supporting role on two.
Although several agencies were assigned lead responsibilities for each of the individual projects, it is not clear who has the leadership or authority to oversee and monitor the progress of the entire collaborative effort.
The audit team recommended the Mayor update Executive Order 91 to clearly designate the agency responsible for developing and implementing a strategic plan and policies for homelessness. Once a shared strategy is developed to address homelessness, policies should be aligned to achieve results.
Auditors also found Road Home lacks staff resources necessary to carry out its role, which includes strategic planning, policy development, event planning and data analysis. We found that several Road Home staff were overextended in 2018, taking on additional time-consuming tasks outside their job descriptions.
Staff cannot devote enough time and attention to strategic planning and policy development, auditors found. Road Home also lacks a dedicated data analyst, a position that several peer agencies in other cities use to continually track homelessness.
In fact, we found Road Home has not undergone a staffing analysis in the past 10 years. As a result, some employees have had to assume duties beyond the scope and experience requirements of their job descriptions.
Road Home is using some leading practices for collaboration, including working with partners and more than 20 community-based service providers to administer coordinated shelter, outreach, and other services for those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The Road Home director and staff reported collaborating and networking on 43 committees and workgroups to discuss homelessness issues.
However, the city needs a comprehensive strategy and aligned staff resources before it can get a handle on addressing homelessness.
“A more comprehensive strategy, well-defined performance measures, and aligned staff and community resources could lead to real improvement when it comes to addressing homelessness,” Auditor O’Brien said. “I look forward to seeing how the mayor plans to make it happen in his new department.”