The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services does not know whether its $45 million plan to reduce homelessness and rough sleeping is actually working, the state auditor general has found.
In a scathing report published on Thursday, the Victorian Auditor General’s Office examined the state government’s Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Plan (HRSAP), as well as three specialist homelessness services funded by DHHS to deliver the program: Haven Home Safe, Launch Housing, and Neami National.
The audit found that while some positive outcomes have been achieved for clients, there were some major issues with the handling of the program.
“Poor planning, a lack of agreed goals and limited performance monitoring mean that some people who could have been housed may still be sleeping rough,” the report said.
Under HRSAP, clients should receive priority access to available social housing. However, VAGO found that between March 1 and December 31 2019, the audited entities provided long-term (longer than 12 weeks) housing to just 31 of 429 HRSAP clients.
“Homeless clients often require one-bedroom properties, but those are scarce, which contributes to the long wait for housing allocation,” the report said.
“The audited entities report that the lack of housing options available has made it hard to apply ‘housing first’ principles, which are central to HRSAP. Most housing outcomes achieved for clients are transitional housing and crisis accommodation, which provides short-term respite for people who are rough sleeping.”
The report noted that the majority of clients supported by assertive outreach teams have not found stable accommodation, with data from the audited entities revealing that up to 273 people may still be rough sleeping.
HRSAP has provided 17 one-bedroom modular units, although their construction was delayed. Clients can stay at these units, where staff “provide multidisciplinary support to help residents achieve housing stability, improve their personal wellbeing and social connectedness, and transition to sustainable long-term housing within two years”, the report said.
VAGO argued that these units have the potential to “make positive long-term impacts on occupants”, but DHHS doesn’t yet have plans to recommend the government roll out more of them.
The report also highlighted a number of issues with planning and implementation of the HRSAP programs.
The department’s services agreements, which are used to oversee how homelessness services spend public money and deliver services, are not specific to HRSAP, the audit found. They are also too broad, and do not clearly identify program deliverables or performance measures.
DHHS did not develop an implementation plan, a risk management plan, or a risk register for HRSAP, and governance arrangements for HRSAP within DHHS have been “largely informal”, the report noted.
“This diminished oversight and accountability for the delivery of HRSAP is concerning given it is described as ‘the foundation’ of the government’s strategy to reduce and prevent homelessness,” it said.
“The lack of governance arrangements and reporting has contributed to DHHS’s ineffective monitoring of the program’s performance.”
DHHS also failed to develop program guidance before HRSAP programs began in January 2019, leaving the audited organisations to refer to procurement documentation to find out their expected deliverables.
There were also issues with performance monitoring, VAGO found. For example, DHHS has not developed a performance indicator to determine whether HRSAP organisations have reduced rough sleeping, and did not establish baseline numbers of rough sleepers in each service location area.
“This means that even if it can collect data on rough sleeping now, it cannot make a performance assessment,” the report said.
Performance standards and deliverables for HRSAP also weren’t clearly defined from the outset of the program, and there were problems with the department’s data collection processes and transparency.
In his response to the report, DHHS associate secretary Ben Rimmer noted that while no individual program can solve the issue of rough sleeping, each program must be managed “effectively and efficiently”.
“The number of rough sleepers, the experience of those rough sleepers, and their transition path to housing outcomes all depend on thoughtful, comprehensive and integrated action from all levels of government over time,” he wrote.
“[HRSAP] is an early demonstration of a broader approach in which the department will embark upon a bold and evidence-based response to homelessness and a more strategic approach to assisting people sleeping rough.
“While the pandemic has significantly impacted our activities, it has also strengthened our partnerships with service providers and our determination to improve outcomes for people who are rough sleeping.”
The department has accepted all 13 of VAGO’s recommendations.