Fed Grants Process for Runaway/Homeless Needs Work, GAO Says

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The Family and Youth Services Bureau needs to improve the application process used in  awarding grants to service providers for runaway and homeless youth, the Government Accountability Office says in a report released late yesterday.

The GAO examined the bureau’s 2007 and 2008 grants to run basic shelters, transitional living programs and street outreach programs, the three federal funding streams for providers to homeless youth. Funding for those three streams totaled between $102 million and $105 million for most of the decade, and saw a slight increase to $113 million in 2008.  

FYSB is a division of the Administration for Children and Families, which is a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The GAO said that the criteria for applicants was not aggregated in a section of the grant notifications. “We found that criteria were scattered throughout various sections of the announcement, had multiple labels, and were not presented in an orderly manner in a single location.”

The HHS response to the GAO report said that all evaluation criteria for the three grant programs were listed in Section Five of each announcement. But the GAO said it found instances where the bureau’s peer reviewers scored applications based on criteria only found in different sections.

The peer reviewers themselves were also an issue, according to the report. FYSB’s internal controls called for reviewers with expertise who would attend mandatory meetings to prepare for the reviews, but GAO said the bureau’s use of those controls was “weak.”

Based on the resumes of 76 peer reviewers, the report said, only 26 had direct experience with runaway and homeless youth programs. Thirty-one others had indirect experience, such as social work or teaching, and 19 “did not appear to have any of the relevant knowledge and expertise in runaway and homeless youth.”

The report said that included among the 19 were “students, school teachers, business consultants, and television and media workers.”

Former FYSB Director Harry Wilson, who left the bureau before the years covered by the GAO evaluation, said he made it a priority to include among the peer reviewers students who were former runaways or homeless youth.

“The students, I’d defend that to the hilt,” said Wilson. “Once they were involved, we got a lot of comments that the reviews got better.”

GAO research in the report also revealed that despite the three programs receiving about $10 million more in appropriations in 2008 than in 2007, FYSB had six fewer applicants for the money. Forty-two fewer programs applied for street outreach programs in 2008, and there were 21 fewer applicants in 2008 for basic centers. There were 57 more applicants, however, for transitional living program funding.

The report also recommends more timely notifications of funding to give applicants more time to prepare. GAO said 17 of the 20 applicants it interviewed said they found helpful the technical assistance provided to applicants by the Runaway and Homeless Youth Training and Technical Assistance Center. The center is funded by FYSC and is operated by the National Resource Center for Youth Services at the University of Oklahoma.

Click here to read the complete GAO report.