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Little hope for homeless mired in flawed system

Fewer homeless people exited Durham’s support system in 2010 compared to the previous two years.
Fewer homeless people exited Durham’s support system in 2010 compared to the previous two years.

Editor's note: This is the third of a three-part series exploring homelessness in Durham. Today’s article analyzes the challenges the city of Durham is facing in its efforts to combat homelessness as well as how it is trying to improve its system to rectify the issue more effectively.

Despite expansive efforts and good intentions, city officials are struggling to achieve measurable results in the fight to end homelessness in Durham.

In 2010, city homeless service providers received close to $900,000 in funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Whether they successfully transitioned into self-sufficient housing or not, only 70 individuals exited Durham’s homeless services system that year. The total number of individuals served by federal funds is unknown.

Lanea Foster, the former coordinator for homeless services in Durham, said as the system stands right now, there is no accountability to ensure that HUD funds are going toward the program’s ultimate goal—to end homelessness and encourage financial independence. Foster, whose consulting contract with the city was not extended this year, continues to serve as a volunteer for Durham’s homeless service programs.

“When you just look at the numbers and see how few individuals are actually exiting the system, that is a very expensive system,” Foster said. “Most people just need a down payment on their rent to get out of homelessness, not this serious long-term intervention.”

A flawed system

Durham’s main system to combat homelessness, the Continuum of Care, is a federal program that encourages coordinated efforts among local organizations to reduce homelessness. The CoC, along with the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, operates under a system of collaborative funding and planning to support various agencies who provide homeless services.

The current system moves homeless individuals through a uniform, step-by-step process from emergency to transitional to permanent housing subsidized in part by federal funds. This step-by-step process actually encourages longer stays with providers, said Kaaren Johanson, a member of the Durham Homeless Services Advisory Committee.

“We ended up creating a system that fosters chronic homelessness,” Johanson said. “We did not build the right system to effectively deal with the issue.”

There is no coordinated intake system that caters to the personal circumstances of homeless individuals. The current system is inefficient because it assumes that every homeless person needs the same services, which for many homeless individuals are unnecessarily drawn out, Foster said. Rather than assuming every homeless person faces the same struggle, Durham needs to push for the city and county to build a more nimble and responsive system, she said.

“It’s like they are thinking that someone is sick without properly doing a diagnosis,” she said. “They automatically assume they know what the problems are without actually checking to make sure their assumptions are correct.”

Without clear reporting mechanisms to monitor the use of funds or well-defined leadership roles within the governance of homeless services, Johanson said there is no way to solve the systematic problems preventing the CoC from ending chronic homelessness.

Lack of accountability

In 2010, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants volunteered to conduct a programmatic review of the current governance of the CoC and 10-Year Plan in Durham. After spending 100 hours over a period of 11 weeks, the team was unable to find any standardized method of monitoring the use of federal, state and local funding.

“What is lacking right now within this organization is accountability toward the plan,” said Victor Velazquez, senior vice president of people, strategy and enterprise management of the AICPA. “We were not able to find a rationalization of funding for what specific agencies were doing.”

After money is distributed to local agencies, Foster said there is no unifying body that consolidates reports in order to demonstrate whether services are adequately addressing homelessness. Without oversight, Durham has funding “scattered all over the place” and is unable to see what it is actually paying for as various agencies are asked to report information at different times, she added.

Given the transient nature of the homeless population, it is difficult to quantify the direct outcomes of Durham’s various homeless efforts, said Mayor Pro Tempore Cora Cole-McFadden, who is also a city council member and member of the steering committee to end homelessness.

“Unless we have more reporting, people are going to get lost,” Cole-McFadden said. “You can’t follow these people under the current system.”

No clear leader

In June, under the leadership of Cole-McFadden, the city appointed the Durham Homeless Services Advisory Committee. With an emphasis on preventative services and a proper governance structure, Cole-McFadden envisions the advisory committee ultimately serving as an oversight committee for local agencies, such as Urban Ministries, Inc. and Genesis Home.

“For the last year or so, we have had concerns about the direction that we are going,” Cole-McFadden said. “We needed to make sure that we put in place some mechanism to ensure accountability from the folks who are getting the Continuum of Care grants.”

Although HUD granted the advisory committee final oversight of CoC and 10-Year Plan funds, Stephen Hopkins, a member of the committee, said the city and county managers are not allowing the advisory committee to make decisions that could lead to a more efficient use of federal money.

“We have been trying to make decisions, and every decision we have tried to make has been met with hostility from the city and the county staff,” Hopkins said. “We are just trying to figure out who has the total responsibility for the CoC and its success.”

Andrew Cummings, assistant county manager for special projects, said the sentiments expressed by some of the members of the advisory committee do not necessarily reflect the view of the whole committee. Because it is a newly formed entity, the group is still in the “information gathering stage,” and there is a lack of consensus about what systematic changes are desirable at this point, he added.

“I agree that the funding recommendations for the Continuum of Care grant decisions should probably stop with whatever the Continuum of Care local chosen leadership board is, which is the Homeless Services Advisory Committee,” Cummings said. “Sending their decisions then to City Council is not a necessary step.”

Still, Cole-McFadden said there is a sub-committee currently in place to figure out the structural leadership for the CoC. Cole-McFadden said in the future agencies will be held more accountable for their performance, with established rules monitoring the use of CoC funds.

“Citizens expect us to have something in place to track what is happening with public funds, and that is not there right now,” she said.

A need for communication

Local agencies and government officials are working toward changing the CoC and 10-Year Plan to start improving the accountability and leadership of homeless prevention services in Durham. In an initial step toward this goal, all service providers adopted the Carolina Homeless Information Network in an effort to streamline reporting and create more information about the use of funds.

Peter Donlon, director of programs at Urban Ministries of Durham—a local homeless shelter—said the agencies are also working toward implementing a unified intake system to ensure that individual needs are met more effectively.

“There are several agencies in Durham that provide similar services or the same,” Donlon said. “We have clients come to us and get needs met or if not, they will go to the next partner, and then they will go to the next partner. So now we are trying to do a coordinated intake so we know where to refer them. We are trying to look at a more coordinated functioning that will help with reports, too.”

Hopkins, a former homeless person himself, said city officials administering the CoC should meet with the homeless population before moving forward. The city should also support more programs that address the specific needs of each homeless individual.

Ultimately, Cole-McFadden said the city needs more information about the people who are coming through the system to improve its efficiency.

“We need to look at the root causes of what is happening,” she said. “I don’t know what is happening, I really don’t, but I would like to have more information.”

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