In early June, a staff member in the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services asked her supervisor for help crafting a sensitive, and potentially explosive, email.

Due to a cascade of challenges within the city agency, it had missed a consequential federal reporting deadline, staffer Camille Wathne wrote in the email draft. Without the report, the department couldn’t submit a request for financial reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And due to the blown deadlines, the city was now staring down a massive funding deficit and poorer standing with HUD.

The email is part of hundreds of pages of documents The Baltimore Banner reviewed to examine how city officials missed these deadlines. The emails are between city and HUD officials from 2021 to 2023 and were obtained through a public records request.

The communications show that the city couldn’t maintain its access to HUD’s electronic system for disbursing grants, sometimes because city staff had violated HUD security rules, and other times because key personnel had left for other jobs.

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The implications for this breakdown are lasting: HUD, which funds millions of dollars worth of homelessness eradication projects in Baltimore every year, considers how well grant recipients comply with funding rules before awarding more in subsequent years.

These projects fund a wide spectrum of services, from rental assistance programs to social workers who can help people transition out of homelessness. In general, fund recipients live with chronic disabilities, may not have the ability to work, and may depend on the subsidized services to survive.

In their email thread, Wathne and Irene Agustin, director of the homeless services office, debated whether to send the message before or after a meeting with the recipients, many of whom serve on a board that advises and carries out homeless services initiatives in Baltimore. Agustin advocated for a delay, saying she was hopeful the situation would resolve.

But it didn’t. The city is now more than $10 million short and in jeopardy of losing critical HUD dollars in future years.

So dire is the situation that it compelled Mayor Brandon Scott to write a letter to HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge in late June asking for an extension to the deadline to submit the reimbursement requests, according to a copy of the letter shared with The Banner.

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A primary reason the city missed deadlines, according to the documents, is linked to the suspension of the city agency’s access to HUD’s electronic line of credit system from May 2022 to June 2023. That system, from which the bulk of HUD grant funds are drawn, contains funds for most projects and requires program recipients to follow strict security guidelines.

But staff members in the homeless services office did not follow those protocols, the emails show. An accountant in the office shared his unique identification code and that of another colleague, another accountant, in a May 2022 email to HUD’s line of credit system administrator. Within a few hours, both staffers — critical to the department’s success — lost their access, according to the emails.

Over the next year, more city officials would get certified to draw funds but confronted multiple problems with the line of credit system, records show. Among the most alarming came in late 2022 when a supervisor — who served as the agency’s lone “approving official” — left for another city position.

Without an approving official in place, no one else could recertify staffers to keep their credentials up to date. By the time the deadline for recertifying came around on Jan. 15, Troy King, the official, had moved on to a new post in the city’s Department of Public Works, according to the records.

Staffers within the homeless services agency acknowledged the urgency of the situation by late January. William Wells, the office’s former deputy director, wrote to Baltimore’s HUD liaison in a Jan. 31 email that the entire office’s staff had been locked out of the system due to the approving official mishap.

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“Our initial response indicated that we would have a response by February 28, 2023, and it is still possible for us to meet this goal, but it is increasingly in jeopardy unless we can recover our access,” Wells wrote. He left the agency in early February.

Email from William Wells, Deputy Director of the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services.
Email from William Wells, Deputy Director of the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services. (The Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)

HUD did not respond to questions from The Banner about why getting new people access to the line of credit system seemed to take so long.

At times, HUD staff also did not respond to the Baltimore office’s concerns with specific fixes. In January 2022, in response to questions from a HUD consultant seeking to help the homeless services staff, a HUD employee replied with a link to a webpage with instructions.

Turnover and staff shortfalls also fueled the crisis, records show. Of the officials included in the emails, at least five staffers have taken other jobs, online records show.

The staffing problem may be putting more pressure on those who stay. This past April, for example, HUD financial officer Aaron Prose notified the office that it had been randomly selected to participate in a survey that would help inform the federal agency’s annual financial audit. They were asked to complete a form by May 12.

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But it wasn’t until about two months later a city staffer, who had been away for parental leave, saw the email. It’s not clear if the city agency faced any sanctions for missing that deadline.

In another instance, staff members wrote that they didn’t have access to a notary on staff or an internal platform, such as Microsoft Sharepoint, to share and house large volumes of files. They also once went so long without making draws from the line of credit system that it sent off internal alarms within HUD.

In other instances, staff members nearly bungled other security procedures critical to safeguarding HUD funds and information. In early March, Agustin, the director of the city department, told HUD liaison Michelle White about problems onboarding a new staff member access to the line of credit system. She offered to send White the staffer’s identification code.

“Oh no, no,” White responded. “Have her fill the form out, you fill your part out, have it notarized, then send it to me encrypted. We would all get our IDs banned from LOCCS [the line of credit system] if we share over email without it being encrypted.”

An email from Michelle White form the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (The Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)

Scott, in his letter to Fudge, cited “administrative hurdles” as the culprit behind the city’s lateness and pledged to have the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Faith Leach institute a series of reforms, including a monthly compliance meeting and report that he would review personally.

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He also wrote that the agency was in the process of hiring two temporary fiscal staff members; expanding line of credit access to all fiscal staff members; working more collaboratively with the city’s Department of Finance; and seeking out more technical assistance to get into compliance. Scott also volunteered to meet with HUD leadership.

“It is our hope that the corrective actions outlined in this letter indicate our willingness and eagerness to do everything in our power to address the administrative hurdles that caused this issue,” he wrote.

It’s not clear that Scott received a response. Representatives from HUD also did not say whether it was possible for the city to win back the $10 million. In June, in response to questions about the reimbursement snafu, a HUD spokesperson said only that it prioritized the well-being of people receiving HUD services.

emily.sullivan@thebaltimorebanner.com

hallie.miller@thebaltimorebanner.com

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