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Robert Simmons, 56, peers out of a tent in the City Creek area off Highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022, as he speaks with a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputy. (File photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Robert Simmons, 56, peers out of a tent in the City Creek area off Highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022, as he speaks with a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputy. (File photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
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As the number of homeless residents continues to rise, San Bernardino County gave back more than $4 million intended to fight homelessness to the federal government after the Board of Supervisors failed to spend it.

During the coronavirus pandemic, San Bernardino County received $8.5 million in emergency solutions COVID grant funding, which was to be used to house homeless residents during the crisis, to prevent COVID-19 from spreading through a group that often has little access to healthcare or good sanitation.

The money flowed from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to counties. From there, it went to local nonprofit groups, who worked with homeless residents to find them temporary housing and submit paperwork to the county to get reimbursed for the associated costs.

HUD was under tremendous pressure and scrutiny to not squander money in the way other pandemic-era programs were sometimes accused of wasting taxpayer money. In January, a .

It was “a lot of money, short turnaround times,” San Bernardino County CEO Leonard X. Hernandez said Friday, April 28.

The nonprofit groups, many of which are small organizations run by two or three people, were used to invoicing the county over a longer period of time than HUD wanted. And, Hernandez said, county staff was also not prepared for the faster turnaround of the receipts.

“We were not very firm with them on getting their invoices in,” he said.

The problem was compounded by many nonprofit groups subcontracting part of the work to other nonprofits, which added additional delays in getting the paperwork turned in to the county and, from there, to HUD.

Before the pandemic, nonprofit groups relied on apartments being available for rent.

“All of the providers said to us that we can’t spend the money fast enough since there’s an eviction moratorium in effect and there’s not just units available,” Hernandez said.

So nonprofits had trouble getting the county’s homeless residents into housing and the county had trouble getting the invoices back in time to meet HUD’s tight deadlines.

As a result, the county ended up returning $4.4 million of the $8.5 million HUD had given it, in two waves in the fall and winter of 2022.

“We have an internal goal,” Hernandez said. “We will never give any money back again.”

In March, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted to allocate $72.7 million in federal, state and county resources to fight homelessness in the county, with an eye toward building more capacity to house homeless residents, so the county and its nonprofit partners aren’t as reliant on apartment and hotel vacancies that may not always be there.

Hernandez said he has no ill will toward HUD officials.

“HUD has been an outstanding partner and we understood what they had to do,” he said.

The agency worked with the county to help it avoid needing to return a third batch of funding this spring, according to Hernandez.

San Bernardino County elected officials expressed frustration and a commitment to continue fighting homelessness in the county.

“Sending even $1 back to Washington, D.C. or Sacramento means fewer families and children have an opportunity to have a roof over their head, a bed to sleep in or having that certainty of their next meal when they have nothing else,”  2nd District Supervisor Jesse Armendarez, who was elected in November, said in a written statement Friday. “Have no doubt, there will be accountability. We cannot let them down.”

The office of Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-San Bernardino, was told by HUD last year about the issue.

“While disappointing, that will not deter my work in securing federal resources for our community,” Aguilar wrote in an email. “I am going to continue to fight for every federal dollar possible to tackle our affordable housing and homelessness crisis.”

On Wednesday, San Bernardino County released figures showing that homelessness has jumped 26% in the past year, based on the one-day Jan. 26 Point in Time Count. An estimated 4,195 county residents are now homeless.

More on homelessness in San Bernardino County

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