Mon, Jun

On Being Wrong and Cheerleading


iAUDIT! - Being a public sector performance auditor requires a mix of absolute certainty and a healthy dose of self-doubt.  We draw conclusions based on documented and verifiable evidence, which is why I rarely include interviews in my writing.  Anyone can say anything; politicians and seasoned bureaucrats like me are experts at making conditional statements sounds like certainties.  When professional auditors perform formal audits, nearly everything they write must be tied to a document or data source.

Self-doubt permeates audit processes.  Once we complete a draft report, we often give it and our evidence to an auditor who wasn’t part of the report team, to double-check every fact and statement.  We also have to admit when we’re wrong.  In fact, it’s built into auditing standards.  Before issuing a public report, we must give the auditee an opportunity to write a management response, which is audit-speak for a rebuttal of our findings.  Audited managers can bring up any facts or data we missed or question the conclusion we draw based on our findings. The only subjects they can’t include are issues outside the audit’s scope, (e.g., “a meteor may hit earth tomorrow so who cares if we waste a million dollars on a failed program”?), and they can’t just make things up.

Indeed, there have been times when I wished I was wrong. When we did a cost analysis of a program and found contracting would be cheaper than using in-house labor, I knew it meant fellow employees could be laid off or transferred.  When our findings of intentional mismanagement meant a colleague could lose his or her job, I wished we were wrong and simply misinterpreted the data.  When I had to stand before the City Council and tell them a program they adopted was costing the city more than it made in revenue, I would have loved to be anywhere else.  But part of a public sector auditor’s job is speaking truth to power.

When I’m researching data for a new City Watch column, I often wish I was wrong.  I wish the number of unsheltered homeless in Los Angeles wasn’t 16 times higher than it is in New York.  I wish the data on services to the unhoused mentally ill proved everyone who needs services receives them.  I wish “permanent supportive housing” really was supportive and permanent, instead of a revolving door of troubled souls who find no respite from their evils by being dropped into box-like apartments with no support. I wish the County spent more than just four percent of the Measure H money meant for supportive service on those services.  I wish the $4 billion the City and County will spend on homelessness will produce meaningful results. I wish people on the streets, in squalid camps and derelict RV’s could be given decent options while they wait for housing that may never be built in sufficient numbers to give them a home.  I wish our political leaders had the courage to admit No Barrier Housing First is a failure and to demand changes from government, from the federal to local levels, and from nonprofits that benefit from the status quo. I wish I was wrong about all of that, but reality has proven otherwise.

That last point brings me to my next subject, cheerleading.  Whatever my personal political leanings may be, when it comes to homelessness, I have not and will not be a cheerleader for any particular person, party or group. When I write a column, I try to stick to empirical data and facts.  I support or oppose policies, not people.  One of the most tragic consequences of politicizing homelessness is that many people refuse to listen to one another based on the perceived groups they belong to.  Advocates mischaracterize critics of Housing First as NIMBY’s who just want the homeless swept out of sight.  Critics call advocates “socialists” for demanding basic services from government.  Of course, there are extremes on both sides.  Some people see the unhoused as crazed drug-addled criminals who deserve nothing more than a one-way bus ride to the desert.  Dreamy-eyed advocates think every homeless person deserves an apartment in a location of their choice regardless of cost.  But there is a vast majority of people of goodwill in between those extremes, who want to see homelessness resolved with practical and compassionate solutions, where the unhoused regain a sense of self-worth and community.

There are some people in the homelessness community whom I admire.  People like the Rev. Andy Bales of Union Rescue Mission, who dedicated a lifetime to restoring homeless people to lives of dignity and responsibility.  Or Jess Echeverry, head of SOFESA and formerly homeless herself, who passionately advocates for individualized, community-based solutions. There are others who embody the divisiveness that plagues the homelessness discussion.  Like Ashely Bennet, City Controller Kenneth Meija’s so-called Director of Homelessness Accountability, who referred to the wretched conditions in tent encampments as “communities of mutual love and self-healing.”

My support or opposition isn’t based on who these people are; it’s based on the policies and practices they embrace. As I mentioned earlier, political leaders can say anything they want; what they do is all that matters. People whose politics I would normally support sometimes propose poor homeless policies, and others who are the polar opposite of my personal politics can espouse effective changes.

That is why I usually only write about specific officials or candidates in the context of the policies they support and enact. Not everyone can agree on 100 percent of all issues. I don’t expect CityWatch’s readers to agree with everything I write. I will never agree with all the policy decisions of our political leaders, even the ones I enthusiastically support. 

As I’ve written several times before, the discussion around homelessness has been turned into a zero-sum game, where one side must win at the expense of the other.  I do not believe calling out the fatal flaws of Housing First means one “hates the homeless”.  Nor do I believe seeing the humanity of unhoused individuals in our communities makes us bleeding hearts.

I believe the driving force dividing the debate about homeless policies is the monetization of homelessness.  The State of California has spent about $14 billion on homeless programs in the last few years. The City and County will spend $4 billion in fiscal year 2023-24.  The cost to businesses, homeowners, and others for leaving 55,000 unsheltered people on the streets runs well into the millions each year. The cost is highest to the homeless themselves, as they endure exposure to the elements and personal crimes, including sexual assault, at truly shocking levels.  And they die at a rate of six per night.

Like any other living organism, organizations have an instinct for survival.  They are loathe to make any changes that would reduce their lifeblood—cash flows.  They try to create an environment that supports the flow of money.  One way to create that environment is to create artificial divisions among people who would otherwise agree on the basics of homelessness.  Nearly everyone wants to see the unhoused in decent, safe, clean shelter, and they want them to receive the services they need.  The problem comes when a relatively small set of entrenched organizations control the narrative—and therefore their income—by demonizing dissenting voices.  Those dissenting voices, in turn, vilify the other side as avaricious frauds who profit from the government’s largesse while doing nothing for people on the streets. With each encounter, the sides move father apart.

Unless and until we eliminate these artificial barriers, the heated rhetoric around homelessness will continue to boil beyond reason.  Among the ways to eliminate the barriers is by a mutual willingness to recognize mistakes, and by refusing to support policies because they fit one’s biases.  

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)

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