VC STAR – Scathing letter questions Oxnard’s handling of homeless grants

12:42 PM, Aug 22, 2014
5:41 PM, Aug 22, 2014

OXNARD, Calif. – Federal officials have sent a scathing letter to Oxnard outlining long-standing problems so severe the city’s ability to handle certain grant funds has come into question.

“City staff has consistently demonstrated a lack of capacity” to administer grants that help the homeless, the Aug. 13 letter from the Department of Housing and Urban Development says.

The document refers to monitoring sessions that stretch back six years. Problems identified in 2008 still have not been fixed, it says. HUD even paid for an outside firm to develop a policy manual that city staff admitted they never used, according to the letter.

In an echo of the highly critical report written by the Ventura County District Attorney’s office in 2012, the HUD letter describes sloppy record keeping that makes it impossible to determine whether rules were followed.

“City files were too disorganized and incomplete to determine the level of compliance,” the letter says at one point, noting some files were “confused and inconsistent” and other required records may not have been kept at all.

The agency has threatened to transfer remaining grant funds to another entity if Oxnard fails to fix certain problems quickly.

City Manager Greg Nyhoff, who started his job June 1, called the letter “extremely disturbing” and said it described “a very concerning management failure.”

“Somebody did not lead well here,” Nyhoff said.

Two of the top city officials noted in the letter have recently left.

Oxnard’s former housing director, Bill Wilkins, retired last month.

Will Reed, who formerly oversaw Oxnard’s homelessness services and is the subject of an investigation by HUD’s Office of Inspector General, quit in April. A HUD spokeswoman said the Aug. 13 letter has nothing to do with that investigation. No update on the investigation was available Friday. Reed is not named in the Aug. 13 letter, but is referred to in it as the former homeless coordinator.

“His fingerprints are heavily involved in this lack-of-compliance issue,” Nyhoff said.

Nyhoff appointed Carrie Sabatini as interim housing director Monday. Sabatini is heading a team that will look through all the old files and “find out exactly where we’ve been missing the mark with HUD,” Nyhoff said, adding: “I’m not going to allow us to fail again.”

He also expects to hire an outside firm early next week to help assess the situation.

As to who was responsible for the yearslong shortcomings, Nyhoff said there are layers of accountability. The letter, which he received Monday, is addressed to him and he believes earlier letters would have been sent to the former city manager.

“This letter is written to me and it’s my responsibility” to see that it gets fixed, he said. “It goes to the top.”

HUD representatives looked at how the city handled grant funds awarded to three agencies: The Kingdom Center, Khepera House and Community Action of Ventura County. A dollar amount for the grants was not included and was not available from the city Friday.

Four items needing quick correction were identified, although one — potentially unsafe electrical wiring at the city-owned Kingdom Center facility, which houses homeless women and children — has already been fixed, Nyhoff said.

Other findings identified problems with paperwork, including lapses that lost Oxnard $2.3 million in HUD funding over the years, the letter said, when grants expired with unspent balances.

“These are long-standing problems that have not improved, despite extensive technical assistance” provided by HUD and previous orders to fix problems, the letter says.

Eileen Tracy, who once sat on the city’s homelessness commission and who has filed complaints about Oxnard’s housing department with HUD, wasn’t surprised by the findings.

“We’ve known for years filing and documentation was incomplete or nonexistent,” Tracy said.

Peggy Rivera, chair of the homelessness commission, said city staff resisted the commission’s input. “I knew they had to listen to HUD,” she said of the letter. “It’s a sad way to get it solved.”

Timothy Hockett, executive director of Community Action of Ventura County, said he was “just anxious to see things improve.”

Some council members said they were appalled by what has come out. One, Councilmember Carmen Ramirez, described long-running frustration with the housing department.

“I have had my complaints that have not been addressed previously,” Ramirez said. “I have confidence in Greg, and I believe we will go forward and do what we need to do.”

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