Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Comptroller Stringer Audit Reveals Weak City Oversight of $53 Million Homebase Homelessness Prevention Program

As homelessness spending reaches all-time high and homeless population continues to soar, City fails to adequately track outcomes or fully oversee providers in key program
HRA failed to review two-thirds of Homebase case files and delayed fiscal audits and recoupments of contract advances -- including more than $2.2 million in advance payments
 In the midst of New York City’s homelessness crisis, Comptroller Scott M. Stringer today released a concerning new audit revealing the City’s weak oversight of the its $53 million-per‑year Homebase Program, which is intended to help families and single adults overcome housing crises, avoid homelessness, and achieve housing stability. The Comptroller’s audit exposed failures by the City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) to adequately and promptly review Homebase providers’ case files and to promptly alert them to correct the deficiencies it finds. Further, HRA’s incomplete tracking of clients who repeatedly return to the Homebase program for services and financial assistance after their cases are closed, combined with inaccurate program records, undercut the City’s ability to assess the effectiveness of the Homebase program and the individual providers. The audit also revealed lengthy delays in HRA’s fiscal reviews of its Homebase contracts and its failure to recoup more than $2.2 million in advance payments 16 months after one group of Homebase contracts ended.
“We are in the middle of a mounting homelessness crisis, with thousands of families struggling in our shelters. While the City is spending more money than ever before on services that are supposed to help people overcome and prevent homelessness, we are not seeing the reductions in homelessness that we should. This audit presents a damning example of the poor management and failures that plague the City’s approach to this ballooning crisis,” said Comptroller Stringer. “There’s a human cost to the City’s failures. If we don’t keep track of the resources that are intended to help vulnerable New Yorkers, the very people we must lift up fall through the cracks. In the fight against homelessness, every penny counts. The City needs to step up and ensure these programs are working and that no dollar is being wasted.”
The Homebase Program is a City-administered homelessness prevention program operating out of 26 locations across all five boroughs. It primarily serves households whose income is below 200 percent of the federal poverty level for families with children or 30 percent of Area Median Income for adult households who are at risk of homelessness or who have recently left the shelter system.
The administration of Homebase was transferred from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to HRA in January 2017, during the scope period this audit covered. However, a majority of the staff in leadership roles overseeing the program have remained the same. HRA currently has Homebase contracts with seven non-profit organizations: Help USA, Bronxworks, Catholic Charities Community Services Archdiocese of NY (ARCHNY), Catholic Charities Neighborhood Services (CCNS), CAMBA, Rise Boro Community Partnership; and SUS Urgent Housing Programs.
HRA’s Inadequate Case File Reviews
The Comptroller’s audit found:
  • As of May 2019, HRA had formally reviewed, and provided the Comptroller’s Office with printed summaries for, only 80 of the 240 Homebase case files it should have reviewed in the preceding 18 months;
  • Although the 80 reviews HRA did initiate dated back to site visits its staff conducted in May and June 2018, the agency did not inform its contracted providers of the results—including multiple deficiencies—before May 2019, in most cases a full year after the review;
  • According to the 80 Homebase case-review summaries HRA originally gave the Comptroller’s office, HRA staff identified 67 deficiencies in 54 of the 80 cases they reviewed—or 68 percent;
  • The deficiencies included 6 instances where clients with income above Homebase program limits were incorrectly deemed eligible to receive services and dozens of instances in which the Homebase service providers’ files lacked required information and documents concerning their clients’ public assistance benefits, income, and financial resources;
  • There were numerous instances in which HRA’s findings and conclusions were internally inconsistent.  In one example, HRA agency staff reviewed five case files maintained by one provider and noted in the conclusion section of their report that two of the five cases did not meet the Homebase program’s income eligibility requirements and should not have received services, but they also noted—inconsistently—in another section of their report that all five cases met income requirements.
  • Toward the end of the year-long audit—after the Comptroller’s auditors informed HRA of the abovementioned deficiencies and inconsistencies—HRA officials claimed for the first time that the case file review summaries they had previously provided to the Comptroller office were not the final versions. HRA later provided the Comptroller’s office with new documents that it claimed were the final versions, which differed significantly from the original summaries.
  • For example, HRA’s revised summaries reported only 23 deficiencies in the 80 case files HRA had reviewed, significantly fewer than the 67 reported in HRA’s original summaries. HRA did not explain the numerous changes, and none of the revised summaries were dated. The original summaries had all been dated either January or February 2019, eight to nine months after HRA had reviewed the case files.  According to HRA, the “final” case file review summaries were not shared with providers until May 19, 2019—in most cases a full year after the site visits.
Information Missing from Homebase Providers’ Case Files
The Comptroller’s auditors also visited 5 of HRA’s contracted Homebase providers and found that 17 of 50 sampled client case files they maintained were either missing required documents or lacked required information.
The deficiencies found in the Homebase contracted providers’ sampled case files are detailed in the table below:
The Comptroller’s auditors also identified additional issues in the providers’ case records, including some that were particularly concerning. For example, according to the providers’ records, 5 of the 28 homes they visited were found to be not habitable.  However, the Comptroller’s auditors found no evidence that the conditions relating to four of those five homes were fixed by the landlords while the Homebase clients continued to reside there. These cases included one where the provider’s case manager observed a rodent infestation, mold or mildew, a water leak and broken windows during the home visit.
In addition, for 27 Homebase cases that remained open longer than 90 days, including 17 cases that were in the program for more than 120 days, up to 270 days, the files contained no evidence that the providers had reassessed the cases as required.
Incomplete Tracking of Homebase-Case Outcomes
HRA does not fully track clients who return to the Homebase Program in ways that could enhance its ability to evaluate the services provided. Clients who return to Homebase for assistance with a new housing crisis are allowed to open a new Homebase case. The Comptroller’s Office found:
  • 2,661 (11 percent) of 24,938 households with Homebase service start dates during Fiscal Year 2018 (July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018) returned to Homebase from one to four additional times within the same 12-month period after their initial cases were closed;
  • Out of these 2,661 households, 1,860 came back and received the same level of Homebase service more than once;
  • 19 (38 percent) of the 50 sampled cases involved clients who had received Homebase services within 36 months prior to the initiation of the cases we reviewed—3 of whom had previously received services less than 60 days before receiving services in the sampled cases.
Failure to Recoup Advance Payments
The audit found that HRA does not follow its own procedures to recoup advances. For example, the Comptroller’s Office found:
  • $2,271,797 in advance payments for seven contracts that were closed out in October 2017 were not recouped as of March 6, 2019—16 months after the closeouts.
  • Delays in recoupments persisted into the midpoint of Fiscal Year 2019, when HRA failed to recoup $565,256 (10 percent) then due on more than $5.65 million it had advanced earlier that year on six active contracts.
HRA Does Not Ensure Timely Audits
The Comptroller’s audit found:
  • HRA does not ensure that required fiscal audits of providers are completed in a timely manner—or at all.
  • Seven of the 11 audits covering the three-year period ending in Fiscal Year 2015 were not completed until after January 2019.
  • Five of these audits determined that funds totaling $255,728 needed to be recouped from the providers.
  • The audits for the remaining four contracts had still not been completed as of May 7, 2019.  As of January 2019, HRA has initiated only 2 of the 16 audits covering the three-year cycle that ended in June 2018.
In response to the findings, Comptroller Stringer made 19 recommendations, including calling on HRA to strengthen its monitoring controls to ensure that it conducts two formal case file review cycles annually and to ensure that its case file review summaries are scrutinized for accuracy and sent to the providers in a timely fashion. The Comptroller also called on HRA to improve tracking of the clients who return to the Homebase Program after their cases are closed to better measure the effectiveness of services the City is providing New Yorkers enrolled in the program.
To view the full audit and recommendations, click here.

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