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Audit: Homeless services group wasted $850K on unsanitary housing for veterans

A report shows the Joint Office of Homeless Services paid for veterans to live in squalor.

PORTLAND, Ore. — A city audit investigation has found the Joint Office of Homeless Services, a city and county-funded program housing those facing homelessness, wasted taxpayer dollars on a property that was deteriorating.

For the past six years, the Joint Office contributed to rent for formerly homeless veterans living at Sandy Studios located on Northeast Sandy Boulevard. The city auditor’s office received a tip to their fraud hotline saying the apartment complex was “unsafe and unlivable.” The investigation showed the Joint Office wasted more than $850,000 paying for veterans to live there.

“It kind of struck us as maybe one of the worst things that can happen,” said KC Jones, director of Portland’s Audit Services, which reviews city programs and funds. Jones said this investigation was unlike any other in that it found the Joint Office spent more than $850,000 to shelter veterans in a two-story apartment complex, but allowed it to “deteriorate into unsafe, unsanitary housing that ultimately left the joint office scrambling to find shelter for the residents.”

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“Eventually in the beginning of 2021, the ceiling collapsed and the building was condemned,” Jones added.

The report goes on to say last January a building inspector found a “collapsed ceiling and damaged roof that allowed water to enter the building” along with “dangerous levels of mold in nearly all the apartments caused by moisture and damage.” There is no record of repairs being made, but the Joint Office said otherwise.

“Some of the pieces were a little sensationalized,” said Shannon Singleton, interim director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services. “There were multiple times that walkthroughs happened where repairs were made.”

The report claims the Joint Office struggled to find new housing for the tenants due to COVID restrictions. The city said while the Joint Office tried to move tenants out of the unsafe building, they still moved people in.

“I think that the folks who weren’t homeless during a pandemic might disagree with that assessment. It really needs to be held in the context of this was the height of the pandemic,” said Singleton.

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Joint Office policies require annual risk assessments of their properties. The report found they did not perform these assessments at Sandy Studios in 2019 or 2020.

The city auditor’s office is now recommending the Joint Office do four things:

  1. Ensure staff are knowledgeable about contract requirements and prepared to enforce them.

  2. To address role conflicts, separate employees charged with contract oversight and enforcement from those responsible for advocating for and supporting nonprofit providers who may be subject to enforcement.

  3. Develop compliance checklists and guidance to ensure oversight is comprehensive and includes prompts to review high-risk areas.

  4. Follow-up on problems identified by service providers in their quarterly performance reports and monitor action plans; document when they have been resolved.

The Joint Office is now hiring more staff to meet the recommendations.

“We know there were important pieces for us to take away and learn,” said Singleton.

The city will follow up with the Joint Office in one year to see how well their recommendations are being implemented. The property is now owned and run by a private company and people still live there. Staff told KGW on Tuesday that they’re repairing the building and working with the city to pass inspections.

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