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Roberta Arvizu, 62, who is experiencing unsheltered homelessness, right, becomes emotional after receiving a care package from San Bernardino Mayor Helen Tran during the San Bernardino County’s 2023 Point-in-Time homeless count in downtown San Bernardino on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (File photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Roberta Arvizu, 62, who is experiencing unsheltered homelessness, right, becomes emotional after receiving a care package from San Bernardino Mayor Helen Tran during the San Bernardino County’s 2023 Point-in-Time homeless count in downtown San Bernardino on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (File photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Nonprofits are disputing that they’re the reason San Bernardino County officials returned more than $4 million in federal funds intended to fight homelessness last year.

San Bernardino County has “a long history of being slow or even completely failing to put out information on available funding and opportunities for organizations to apply for and get access to (homeless program) funding,” said Don Smith, the co-founder of the Rancho Cucamonga-based .

“It’s part of a standing pattern,” he said.

In late April, the county confirmed it had returned $4.4 million of the $8.5 million it had received in emergency grant funding during the coronavirus pandemic after failing to spend the money within the allotted timeframe. The money was to be used to house homeless residents during the crisis and prevent COVID-19 from spreading through a community that often has little access to healthcare or good sanitation.

ɫ̳ of the giveback came days after San Bernardino County reported that homelessness has jumped 26% in the past year, based on January’s Point in Time Count, and a month after the Board of Supervisors committed to a $72 million plan for fighting homelessness, largely by increasing the amount of shelter spaces available to homeless residents.

San Bernardino County CEO Leonard X. Hernandez said in an April 28 interview that nonprofits the county had engaged to assist with providing housing were unable to submit invoices in time to meet deadlines set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This week, however, Hernandez said he didn’t want to engage in “finger pointing” over the return of funds.

“This was the feds giving a lot of money across the nation, all at once, with a very tight timeframe,” Hernandez said. “We’re not saying (to the nonprofits) ‘Hey, you did do something bad,’ it’s just reality.”

But nonprofits involved in the effort to house homeless residents during the pandemic say that explanation leaves out some important failings on the part of the county.

“They sat on that funding for almost two years,” said Sharon Green, executive director of Hesperia-based .

According to three nonprofits that contracted with the county to provide housing to the homeless, the county received millions of dollars from HUD in April and June 2020. But officials didn’t begin getting input from local nonprofits about how it should be spent it until November 2021, 17 months after receiving the first $2.1 million from the federal government.

An initial attempt by the county to begin working with the nonprofits in August 2020 was canceled after the .

“They have a long history of” getting to a slow start, Smith said of the county. “That didn’t just start with this (set) of funds.”

The delay in getting the money was compounded with turnover at the county, nonprofit leaders said.

“Every time I was told who was in charge of the department, they’d be gone before I could find them,” said Darryl Evey, CEO of the Victorville-based Family Assistance Program.

According to Evey, it would take four or five calls from his staff to get a response from the county. At one point, despite the tight timelines involved, the county hired a consultant who worked just one day a week, Evey said.

“Literally every month we were seeing new people coming in and out, many of whom didn’t know this particular grant funding and certainly didn’t know the work being done in the community and focusing on a lot of things that weren’t relevant to drawing down the funds from HUD,” Smith said.

The new staff held up money for what Smith said were minor issues, such as forms missing signatures from homeless people.

“HUD would be the first to say to not let not getting a signature from homeless people be a barrier to them receiving services,” Smith said. “They’re supposed to be looking for ‘is it an eligible expenditure for an eligible activity for an eligible beneficiary.’ … Nobody’s trying to do what’s not required, but (county staff) overdo it to the extreme where they make it almost impossible.”

Hernandez said there was “some” county staff turnover during this time, but not at the levels nonprofits say.

In the end, nonprofits or even their employees paid out of pocket for the services they provided.

“We spent all of the money we agreed to spend,” Evey said. But the county was unable to complete its contracts in time for HUD’s deadlines, so nonprofits didn’t get reimbursed. “That’s why we’re so angry about this.”

His organization, Family Assistance Program, spent $780,000 on a nine-bedroom house in the unincorporated High Desert between Apple Valley and Hesperia to use as traditional housing for homeless county residents. According to Evey, county officials told the organization that FAP had to be in escrow before the contract could be presented to the Board of Supervisors. Then officials came back and told FAP it had to pay for the house without a contract for reimbursement from the county.

“We paid for the house and the person we were talking to disappeared” and no longer works for the county, Evey said.

According to Green, a county staffer told her to focus on purchasing large-ticket items so the money could be spent quickly.

“We were told to spend money quickly, because they assured us that we’d have it,” she said. “My agency spent over $150,000 on property acquisition, because the funding required us to have site control.”

Like the other nonprofits, Green’s agency still hasn’t been reimbursed for purchases it said the county advised it to make without a contract.

“If our doors close, (32) people are going to be on the street,” Green said, putting more homeless people on the streets of Victorville. According to the , Victorville has the second highest population of homeless residents of any city in San Bernardino County, with 607.

“We had to take out several loans to keep us balanced,” Green said. “We still haven’t gotten back to where we were before we started that contract.”

At this point, Evey has given up on the organization ever getting paid back for the house it bought, which FAP used its reserves to pay for.

“I keep reminding myself that there are 10 young people today that have a place to sleep at night because we did that,” Evey said. “And if I focus on that, it keeps me from getting angry at the county for not paying back what they promised.”

The representatives of the nonprofits did express hope for the future, citing San Bernardino County’s recent hiring of Carrie Harmon as Community Development and Housing director. .

“She brings a tremendous amount of experience and background,” Smith said. “The key is if they will let her do what she does and let her reshape the administration of programs over there. We will see a significant improvement of programs over there, if so.”

Evey agrees that Harmon’s hiring appears to be great news.

“A year from now, the nonprofit community will be so much happier, our clients will be happier, and more people will be served,” Evey said.

Hernandez, meanwhile, praised the nonprofits who worked with the county on sheltering homeless residents, and said he didn’t want to engage in “finger pointing.”

“We’re definitely not trying to give our nonprofits a black eye. We value our relationship with them and the work that they do,” he said.

Hernandez does not blame the nonprofits for the money needing to be returned to HUD.

“I think it was kind of a group dynamic,” he said. “We learned some lessons.”

Among those lessons is a need for a different organizational structure internally, better communication, and knowing when the county should spend the money directly itself, rather than outsourcing to nonprofits.

But the buck ultimately stops with the county, Hernandez said, not anyone else.

“We were given the money, they weren’t, so I ultimately take responsibility for that,” he said.

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