EDITORIAL: Housing First’s untidy legacy

Editor Kings County Advertiser and Register
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What a mess.

No money, no volunteers, no employee, no data, no plan and now no Housing First.

The non-profit organization formed to address housing needs in the county has crumbled without much to show except a report released in 2013. 

Grants from federal and municipal governments that were put into a report, research, a forum and “navigator” work seem to have produced few tangible results, despite almost $50,000 being paid out over just nine months to have work done.

What can be done to prevent municipal money going down the drain like this in the future? There are a few lessons that should be learned from the demise of Housing First.

First, the county is wise to tighten up procedures for awarding money. No organization should expect to receive government money without written documentation and a business plan.

Kings chief administrative officer Tom MacEwan couldn’t tell the Advertiser where a 2012 request for a two-year commitment of $40,000 in funding for Housing First came from because it was an oral request.  It was only in the fall of 2013 that council asked for written requests in the future and an accounting of how the money was spent. In 2014, council asked for a business plan before agreeing to future funding.

Second, non-profit organizations like Housing First need to have transparent hiring practices, especially when using government funding. Of Housing First expenses reported for Jan. 1 to Nov. 30 of 2013, the bulk of money spent was on payroll and professional fees: $49,449.

Contracts were granted to a volunteer Madonna Spinazola, first on payroll as “interim navigator” and then for consulting work. These expenses could be completely above board, but the optics are poor.

Employee Lia Renaud said she understood she was taking on a 28-week contract with the organization in January 2014, only to find it was a 10-week gig when she arrived. Again, the hiring confusion could be an honest mistake, but it looks bad. Extending offers of employment without having sufficient cash flow to pay for it is not a smart business practice.

Third, although challenging for volunteer organizations at times, proper record keeping and data backup is crucial. The Housing First board members say a plan for working groups to be formed after the May 2013 forum fizzled because information was lost due to a computer crash.

According to its website, the Housing First Association of Kings County “was established to help co-ordinate the knowledge, compassion and action required to achieve safe, decent, affordable, accessible and sustainable housing for all people in Kings County.”

Spinazola told the Advertiser “most residents would agree that Housing First, considering everything, has accomplished much in the two-year span with little resources.”

Unfortunately, that’s not an obvious truth and few lasting results seem to have come of the project.  Instead, there is a legacy of rumours, misunderstandings and burnt out volunteers - a bad ending for a project that aimed to do so much good. 

Organizations: Housing First board, Housing First Association

Geographic location: Kings

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