People experiencing homelessness camping on Smith Avenue on March 11, 2021, in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

People experiencing homelessness camping on Smith Avenue on March 11, 2021, in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Audit: Snohomish County lacks data-driven approach to homeless services

The Washington State Auditor’s Office this month published a 73-page report looking into four local governments across the state.

EVERETT — Snohomish County and other local governments across the state need to rely more heavily on data and address gaps in services if they want to reduce homelessness, according to a new report from the Washington State Auditor’s Office.

The 73-page audit released earlier this month focused on Snohomish County, Yakima County, Seattle and Spokane.

“Washingtonians are growing more frustrated and concerned as the number of people living on the streets and in encampments continues to grow, even as government spends more on programs to address homelessness,” the report reads.

In 2021, Washington state reportedly spent $357 million on homeless services. One-third of that amount came from federal coffers. From 2018 to 2021, statewide spending on homelessness increased by $102 million, the report says, while the number of people experiencing homelessness remained “stubbornly high.” In 2020, about 23,000 people were reported as experiencing homelessness across the state.

In Snohomish County, data released earlier this year shows homelessness is at a 10-year high. A point-in-time count found 1,184 unsheltered people in the county, a small increase from 2020.

Most of the audited governments lacked a data-driven process to identify and prioritize unmet needs for people experiencing homelessness, according to the report. Instead of data, funding priorities were often reportedly determined by grant requirements or approval from elected officials.

The audit also found that housing solutions varied between the governments.

Spokane and Snohomish County increased their investment in permanent housing over the last five years, the report says, while Seattle and Yakima County did not.

“In contrast, Seattle has consistently spent far more on shelters than on permanent housing,” reads the audit. “Yakima invested most of its funds in supportive services.”

In Snohomish County, the audit recommended officials update contracts with homeless service providers to include language that specifically requests providers with “underperforming” programs to create a detailed action plan. The report recommended the county establish a system to track the performance of those contracted service providers.

The report also found that 10 homeless service programs in Snohomish County were considered “underperforming” for various reasons.

Those programs were offered by the following providers: Cocoon House, Everett Gospel Mission, Friends of Youth, Housing Hope, Volunteers of America and the YWCA. Among the reasons the programs were selected included low rates of exits to permanent housing, high rates of returns to homelessness and high lengths of stay.

When asked about those findings, Mary Jane Brell-Vujovic, the county’s director of human services, pointed to the window of time examined by the report.

“This audit was conducted over a period of 2017 to 2021, meaning half of it happened during the pandemic,” she said. “We had an entire system that turned on a dime to keep meeting the needs of people during a massive public health crisis. There was a recognition that all bets were off trying to meet performance standards in the middle of the crisis of the century.”

Brell-Vujovic added that the findings of the audit did not reflect the capacity of the agencies in question or the quality of the services they provide.

The report included responses from the four governments audited.

In Snohomish County, the audit was a welcome window into ways government can improve, Brell-Vujovic said. But she said those improvements will take time. Brell-Vujovic has worked in the county for 15 years. She said causes of the housing crisis are largely out of her office’s hands.

“I would say that the systems and the network of agencies have all gotten stronger or better,” she said. “However the factors driving homelessness — the cost of housing and the vacancy rates — have gotten worse.”

Brell-Vujovic said the county has taken steps to increase the number of shelter beds. Right now, the county has 683 shelter beds available year-round. And that number could increase by 130, Brell-Vujovic said, once a hotel purchased by the county opens as shelter space.

County officials plan to heed the recommendations laid out in the audit. Currently, Brell-Vujovic said her office is developing a more structured system to document service contractors.

“That being said, it takes many years to address the challenges before us,” she said. “Housing doesn’t get built overnight.”

On Nov. 30, the findings of the report will be presented to Washington’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee. Brell-Vujovic said she plans to attend the meeting virtually.

Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; ellen.dennis@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @reporterellen.

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