The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness runs the majority of D.C.'s homeless services, including the operation of the family homeless shelter at D.C. General.
D.C. officials are reviewing the city's relationship with a nonprofit organization that has been accused of overbilling the city and potentially breaking the law in the management of two contracts worth more than $80 million for services to homeless residents.
"We know there’s a problem here, and understanding the problem and defining the problem is the path we need to take to fix it, and we absolutely are fixing it, this is not something we are glossing over or defending," says Laura Zeilinger, the acting director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, the city agency largely responsible for serving homeless residents.
In a report published late last week, D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson said that The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP), the city's primary contractor for homeless services, overbilled the city by $5 million last year.
According to Patterson, the problem occurred because TCP billed the city for the estimated costs of future services, instead of the actual cost of services that had already been provided. That would represent a violation of D.C. law.
Patterson also said the group — which for two decades has held large contracts to run D.C.'s homeless services — may have violated the law by not returning unspent funds to the city's treasury at the end of every fiscal year.
"If you have money from the District that you haven’t spent in this fiscal year and the fiscal year comes to a close, then those funds are supposed to go back into the general fund. There’s supposed a be a reconciliation, and that’s the step that apparently has not been taken, at least for the last two fiscal years," said Patterson, speaking on WAMU 88.5's The Kojo Nnamdi Show on Monday.
A problem of centralization?
A breakdown of how D.C. spends money on services for the homeless. Click to enlarge. (D.C. Auditor)
The critical audit isn't the first time that TCP has come under scrutiny for its work with 7,784 D.C. residents that were estimated to be homeless every day in 2014.
Among its many other activities, the group runs the family homeless shelter at D.C. General in Southeast, and has been criticized in recent years for the conditions faced by residents there.
Maggie Riden, executive director of the D.C. Alliance for Youth Advocates and a member of the Inter-Agency Council on Homelessness, says that one of the problems is that so much of the city's services to homeless residents is centralized in TCP. That, she says, has meant that oversight of the services being provided has fallen short.
"When you have that many activities going on, it’s very easy to lose some of the details and some of the oversight that’s so critical to make sure that the investments we’re making are quality investments," she says.
Zeilinger said that while the auditor's report contained no allegations of misappropriation of funds and did not assess the quality of services that TCP was providing to homeless residents, the overall contracts with the city were under review.
"The mayor has committed that we do a top-to-bottom review of the contract with The Community Partnership," she said.
She also said that the group was cooperating in the review. "They’re very eager to demonstrate that they’ve spent money in ways that they were instructed to," she said.
A request for comment from TCP on Tuesday went unanswered.
Getting the money out
A D.C. official who was not authorized to speak publicly said that some of the problems identified by Patterson's office extended to the Department of Human Services, which enabled some of the problematic spending practices to overcome bureaucratic hurdles that may have slowed money from going out the door for services.
"There’s a whole very long history of the way that DHS has done business with the partnership that has been a way to try and compensate for bureaucratic obstacles and the time it takes from when dollars get loaded into the DHS budget and when [D.C.] issues contracts and provides funds to agencies who deliver services," said the official.
Last year, DHS spent over $100 million on homeless services, split between the pair of large TCP contracts, $8.7 million for motel rooms for families that could not be fit into existing shelters, the permanent supportive housing program, and the emergency rental assistance program.
The official did concede that the close relationship between TCP officials and the D.C. government, one that extended to high-ranking TCP officials taking high-level government positions in past mayoral administrations, may have contributed to the spending problems not being adequately addressed.
"The relationship that different people in D.C. government and this history they’ve had with TCP has certainly influenced decision-making," said the official.
Riden says the lack of oversight has extended beyond that, though.
"The unfortunate reality is that our homeless problem is incredibly complex, and DHS handed over a lot of power and responsibility to [TCP] and didn’t really want to have a hand in what was going on because they had enough on their plates. It’s a question of oversight at multiple levels — Council’s oversight of DHS and DHS’s own oversight of the contractor they’re choosing to work with to administer these grants and these services," she said.
The power to select
Speaking on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, Patterson, who formerly represented Ward 3 on the D.C. Council, said that while she didn't think that her findings meant that the city's contract with TCP should be terminated immediately, the city should more broadly consider how many of its homeless services it contracts out.
“I do think part of the review by the Bowser administration of the homeless services … is to reevaluate the District government’s own role. It’s my own belief that we really need to assess what is a governmental function and it may be that selecting contractors for all these services is something that our own Department of Human Services should be doing rather than handing that function over to a nongovernmental entity," she said.
Riden says that while TCP's role in data management and reporting — which is key to maintaining federal funding and grants — should be kept in place, other elements of the work it does should be given to other providers.
"Breaking up some of these direct-service contracts and making sure that they are out to smaller providers who are able to do higher quality services ... would be ideal. It just creates and additional set of checks and balances," she said.
But until a decision is made on TCP's contracts, Zeilinger said that there would be increased scrutiny of the group and its work.
"The relationship with TCP is one that will absolutely have increased accountability and oversight in this administration, and I think that will be good for us, for residents and for The Community Partnership," she said.