Nick Wagner, Deseret News
A homeless man walks past the Rio Grande Cafe in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 3, 2016.

Legislative auditors are performing an invaluable service as neutral watchdogs over sweeping new efforts to deal with homelessness in Utah, and specifically along the Wasatch Front. Their reports underscore one essential driving point — today’s leaders have to get this right. Too much is at stake.

This week, the Legislative Auditor General’s Office released its third report, on the heels of an audit last spring that uncovered widespread drug abuse in shelters, including the discovery of a red ball of candy laced with THC in the family shelter, with children nearby.

This one outlines problems with record keeping, which in turn makes it difficult to determine whether programs are working. It also reveals that the State Homeless Coordinating Committee lacks a strategic plan and any measurable goals. The audit recommends state lawmakers clarify the committee’s responsibility and give it statewide oversight of efforts to help the homeless. That makes sense.

Some of the accounting deficiencies have made programs look more successful than they really are. For instance, in 2015 the Department of Workforce Services announced it had reduced chronic homelessness by 91 percent over 10 years — an extraordinary achievement that made national news and brought attention to a Housing First program providing apartments to the chronically homeless.

Providing housing first helped many transient people get back on their feet, but the report highlights significant changes in counting methods during that 10-year period that exaggerated the progress.

At the beginning of that period, the state counted people in transitional housing as chronically homeless. They stopped doing so after five years. Also, the federal government stopped multiplying its annual one-night count of the homeless by a certain factor and began reporting the raw number, instead.

Those two factors accounted for what looked like huge declines in the number of chronically homeless people.

" For too long, the homeless were forced to mingle with criminals in order to receive services.  "

In other cases, the deficiencies made programs look less successful than they are. The Salt Lake County Continuum of Care, a regional effort that distributes federal funds and oversees a system used to maintain client records, concluded that 68 percent of the people enrolled in a Rapid Rehousing program returned to homelessness within two years — an alarming figure. Instead, auditors found that 74 percent of those people never got subsidized housing in the first place.

This audit is valuable for two important reasons. The first is that taxpayers, as the report notes, spent more than $100 million in 2017 alone on the problem of homelessness along the Wasatch Front. In 2019, three new shelters are scheduled to open, and the old shelter on Rio Grande Street is scheduled to close. This dramatic shift in the treatment of the homeless demands close and credible monitoring.

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The second reason is that lives are at stake. For too long, the homeless were forced to mingle with criminals in order to receive services. Many of them need critical mental health services or suffer from other ailments. Many need job training or other services to help them become self-sufficient.

Only a credible system of accountability, including an accounting of whether the truly needy are finding their way to services, will allow people to know whether progress is being made toward solving these problems, or whether changes are needed. With such a program in place, Utah’s approach to homelessness one day could be deserving of genuine national recognition.