A single blue tent sits on the front steps of Oakland's City Hall building.
A tent sits on the steps of Oakland City Hall. (Alastair Boone)
Despite spending $69 million over three years, the city failed to sufficiently track contractors’ work, a recent audit found.

A long-awaited audit of Oakland’s homelessness services found that the city is not moving enough residents into permanent housing and not collecting enough data to determine how well the programs are running. The analysis released this week by City Auditor Courtney Ruby examines the last three years of Oakland’s homelessness programs, looking at their effectiveness, outcomes, and who was served. Ruby found that Oakland spent $69 million over this period on contracts with service providers, mostly nonprofits, but didn’t sufficiently set standards or monitor providers’ work. 

Some of the city’s marquee services for unhoused residents, like the “community cabins” shelters, failed to help a majority of residents transition off the streets into permanent housing. 

“We can do better, and must do better,” wrote Ruby, who issued 30 recommendations, calling on the city to come up with an overarching strategy for these services, including collecting more data and providing stronger oversight. 

The city administration has agreed to comply with all of Ruby’s recommendations, setting goals of carrying out all of the changes by the end of next fiscal year, summer 2024. 

In a written response to the audit, City Administrator Ed Reiskin said Oakland’s homelessness response was “greatly impacted” by the pandemic. 

City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who first called for the audit in 2019, issued a statement today calling the findings “unacceptable.” 

“The answers in this audit show that Oakland’s investments and programs are not achieving strong enough results to address this crisis,” she wrote, “nor is the city administration doing the very basic management of data analysis and contract compliance.” 

Around the period the audit covers, Oakland’s homeless population grew tremendously, from 2,761 in 2017 to over 5,000 people in 2022. Black residents are disproportionately represented in this group, making up 59% of the unhoused population but just 21% of Oakland. 

The city, typically through contracted organizations, operates numerous shelter and housing programs for homeless people, ranging from tiny-home villages to conventional group shelters to RV parking sites. Most of the programs are considered “crisis response” facilities—meant to get people off the streets and into temporary shelters and transitional housing, where they’ll be connected with services and eventually placed into permanent housing. Other “longer-term housing programs” offer support with rent and services as people transition into stable housing. 

Over the three years covered in the audit, 8,683 people came through the programs examined. Ruby found that the racial demographics of these residents largely mirrored those of the overall unhoused population. Around 70% of the participants served were Black across the programs, with the exception of the RV safe parking sites, which disproportionately served white people. 

A larger portion of the homeless population is sheltered at these kinds of emergency facilities now than in recent years, in part because several new locations opened during the pandemic using COVID-19 relief funds. An initial, scathing audit, released last year, focused on homeless encampments specifically, finding the city was also unprepared to address the growing number of camps. 

“Mixed results” with some residents getting housed, and many others returning to the streets 

When the city opened its first community cabin site at the end of 2017, officials lauded the program—where residents live in small, lockable sheds, with access to services—as an innovative and accessible “bridge” to housing for people living on the streets. Residents could bring pets, partners, and belongings, privileges typically denied at traditional shelters. But some participants have complained that they’re required to double-up with strangers in the small sheds, and are subject to strict rules. 

Numerous cabin sites have opened since then, and of the 669 residents who’ve left over the past three years, about 30% of them have gone onto permanent housing, consistently below the stated 50% goal, the audit found. During the worst year tracked in the report, 58% of those who left returned to homelessness. 

The percentage and number of people who leave for housing “may be the most important metrics for ending homelessness,” Ruby wrote in her report. In most cases, Oakland’s programs are falling short of its goals. 

The city’s family programs are the most successful in housing residents, according to the audit. Emergency shelters for families consistently surpassed the goal of housing 30% of residents who leave the facilities, in one year reaching 77%. Nearly all families who’ve gone through transitional housing sites have gone onto permanent housing, although many first stay in the temporary facilities much longer than the 6-9 month goal. 

But the data on these “exits” is incomplete, according to Ruby, who found that one shelter operator didn’t provide data for an entire year, skewing the analysis of not only their program but the overall success of the city’s offerings. 

More oversight needed of city contractors 

The city’s data collection practices were flawed at every step of the process, according to the new audit: Oakland failed to ask the right questions in the first place. Service providers failed to submit accurate data on time. And the city failed to draw useful conclusions from the data that was available. 

“The city does not have the requisite analytical and technical skills to consistently analyze, track, and monitor data, all of which is needed to effectively manage homelessness services and hold service providers accountable,” the report said. 

The RV program doesn’t even have goals for its residents, or provide meaningful access to housing services, Ruby found. 

“Without establishing program goals, it is unclear how program participation is intended to lead to permanent housing and other positive outcomes,” she wrote. “The city cannot expect participants to improve their living situations without offering housing navigation and other services.” She also noted that the city and county do not track what happens to people after they land in permanent housing—meaning successful outcomes might lead back to homelessness down the line. 

However, the city’s “longer-term” programs supporting people who’ve just moved into permanent housing, by helping with rent payments, furniture, and social services appear largely successful. Virtually all residents in these programs remained housed for at least a year. These programs serve less than a third of the people who go through the crisis sites, however. 

The audit also examined whether programs were connecting participants with benefits and income that could help them get off the streets. The city showed “mixed results” when it came to enrolling people in disability benefits and food stamps, but more success with health insurance. 

The City Council in June passed a resolution requiring clearer goals and evaluation processes for homelessness contractors, and asking city staff to present a detailed plan to achieve the audit’s recommendations. 

“Our unsheltered neighbors deserve services that lead to dignity and permanent housing, and our taxpayers deserve accountability and results from our investments,” said Bas in her statement. 

But underlying the work to move shelter participants into permanent housing is a recognition that Oakland and Alameda County are desperately short of the number of housing units needed to satisfy the demand. A recent county analysis found a need for around 24,000 additional affordable housing units or rental subsidies by 2026. 

That figure is “staggering,” wrote Ruby, and it “places an urgency on the city to implement the audit’s recommendations to ensure people, plans, strategies, and oversight are in place to permanently house our homeless over the long-term, and to make certain they are in safe, clean and secure temporary housing arrangements until then.” 

This story originally appeared in The Oaklandside.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside.