Follow the money

Budget problems at the local homelessness board suggest the need for a better policy to help homeless people


Leaders of the Toledo-Lucas County Homelessness Board have taken two cracks in recent days at explaining how the board managed to overspend $98,000 in public money provided by the City of Toledo. They still haven’t offered a coherent account.

That’s troubling in itself. But it’s even more disturbing because of what it may suggest about the board’s ability to execute its vital duties: Interpreting and enforcing complex government rules aimed at preventing homelessness in Toledo, and coordinating emergency shelter and finding permanent housing for people who become homeless.

The episode gives even greater urgency to the redemption of Toledo Mayor-elect D. Michael Collins’ campaign promise to overhaul the way city government deals with homeless shelters and sets anti-homelessness policy in general.

To its credit, the homelessness board publicly disclosed the spending problem. Board officials say an independent audit found a “major accounting error” that led to the overspending of federal anti-homelessness aid passed along by the city.

They insist the money was neither stolen nor spent improperly. They vow the board won’t make the same mistake again. But they concede they still don’t know just how the money went missing, or what account it came from.

Board leaders say they won’t find that out — or discover whether the overspending has created a budget deficit — until the outside auditor completes her review of the board’s finances. Although the board gets points for transparency, this mistake does not inspire public confidence in its competence.

The board properly has backed away from its initial request that the city forgive the overspending. Such a plea is at least premature until the board can determine how the error occurred.

The Toledo Department of Neighborhoods, the city agency that works most closely with the homelessness board, is distancing itself from the spending fiasco. So are former board officials.

The issue suggests again the need for a different approach to homelessness policy in Toledo and Lucas County. Operators of local homeless shelters accuse city government and the board of excessive rigidity in interpreting federal regulations that govern the use of money to combat homelessness.

At times, the procedures set by the city and board have been punitive toward shelter operation and unnecessarily bureaucratic in their approach to the people they are charged with helping. Painful budget cuts and funding disputes affecting shelters, accompanied by increased demand for their services, have created overcrowding at some shelters, along with delays in helping some shelter residents find permanent housing.

The homelessness board clearly needs to get its finances in order. More broadly, the city needs a new strategy to combat homelessness that is more inclusive, compassionate, responsive, and effective. That item should be at the top of Mayor Collins’ to-do list.