As cities and counties across California get ready for billions in new homelessness dollars from the state, a local commissioner is raising questions about who will be watching the money.
The state is leaving it to cities and counties to decide the level of local oversight that will exist — including whether or not citizen commissions will be reviewing the spending in addition to elected officials.
That’s led Anaheim housing commissioner Tim Houchen to raise concerns about whether the spending will be missing citizen’s oversight that does exist for other homeless dollars.
When it comes to federal homelessness dollars, cities like Anaheim are required to have the spending be publicly reviewed by citizens on the city’s housing commission, said Houchen, a formerly homeless man who chairs that commission.
Yet Houchen says he’s gotten no assurances that oversight will be in place for the wave of new state homelessness dollars that are headed to his city and others across California.
“I’m kind of concerned,” he said in a recent interview with Voice of OC.
Without citizen oversight, Houchen said, homeless spending can “kind of becomes a club — you know, a good old boy club [that keeps hiring] the same nonprofits that have been around for a long time.”
He said there should be performance reviews on contractors.
“[Contractors] should be there because they’re high performers, not because everybody knows everybody.”
State officials say cities and counties are left to decide what type of local oversight they want, beyond the requirement elected officials have to approve the funds.
“In order for us to release money, there has to be an authorizing resolution from the local city council, board of supervisors, etc,” said Russ Heimerich, deputy secretary for communications at the state’s Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency.
“These elected officials will determine the degree of citizen engagement for a given Homekey project.”
Project Homekey just got $2.75 billion of the new statewide funding.
The project is a massive joint effort by state and local governments to convert motels and hotels into permanent housing for homeless people with support services.
Another $2 billion is for homeless housing and services grants to local governments known as the Homeless Housing, Assistance, and Prevention Program (HHAP).
OC’s second-largest city, Santa Ana, plans to bring the new state homelessness funding to their City Council for approval, but not the citizens’ oversight commission that reviews federal homelessness funding.
“[Federal homelessness] funding goes to the Community Development Commission for review but this state funding will not,” city spokesman Paul Eakins said. “However, all budget appropriations are publicly agendized for the City Council’s consideration.”
Asked why the state dollars aren’t being reviewed by the citizens’ commission, Eakins noted the commission’s purpose is to review federal housing and homelessness funding that comes to the city.
“There has not been a city commission that has provided input into this type of state funding,” he added.
The county’s largest city, Anaheim, plans to bring the state dollars to the City Council, though a spokeswoman didn’t respond when asked if it will go to the citizens’ commission that usually reviews housing and homelessness spending.
“All state money we receive related to homelessness goes before the City Council for allocation, with an opportunity for public review and comment,” city spokeswoman Lauren Gold told Voice of OC.
As for the county’s portion of the new funds, part of that will be reviewed by a county commission of homeless service providers and residents known as the Continuum of Care board.
The best way for residents to review how the money is being proposed to be spent is to attend or listen to public meetings of the care board and the county Board of Supervisors, said Douglas Becht, director of operations for the county’s Office of Care Coordination.
Brooke Weitzman, a leading attorney representing disabled homeless people in Orange County, said it’s crucial for there to be public transparency around homelessness spending.
Especially when it comes to measuring and tracking whether spending is actually yielding good results.
“As we’re seeing more and more funding coming into housing and related services, it is important that there’s accountability with that funding. And that accountability comes in the form of setting appropriate deliverables and ensuring those are met,” Weitzman said.
“I think that’s one of the challenges we see with what people call the homeless industrial complex – millions of dollars going into certain services, [and] we’re not even getting the report on what they are doing.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.