Voters to decide if Office of Homeless Services needs oversight

Advocates hold up signs Monday, May 6, during a City Council budget hearing about the Office of Homeless Services.

Voters in next year’s primary will likely be deciding whether Philadelphia should have an ombudsperson overseeing the Office of Homeless Services, after City Council approved legislation Thursday.

The newly created position would lead a team empowered to conduct investigations into OHS, issue subpoenas, evaluate grievances and act as an advocate for the homeless population, with a particular focus on the shelter system, according to the legislation.

“We need someone who will serve as a champion on behalf of unhoused residents and ensure that they are receiving timely and quality services,” said Majority Leader Katherine Gilmore Richardson, who sponsored the legislation, in a statement Thursday.

The mayor would nominate the ombudsperson, subject to Council approval. Since the proposal calls for altering the city’s charter, which serves as a municipal constitution, the change must go to the voters, with a question expected to be placed on the May 2025 ballot.

A spokesperson for Mayor Cherelle Parker, when reached Thursday, said the administration does not comment on whether she intends to sign legislation passed by Council.

OHS has been under intense scrutiny since late last year, when lawmakers, particularly Gilmore Richardson, revealed that the department had overspent its budget by nearly $15 million over a four-year period.

In a preliminary report released in April, the city’s Office of Inspector General found that the OHS, under the leadership of former executive director Liz Hersh, purposely ran up a deficit in an attempt to avoid service cuts.

City Council Majority Leader Katherine Gilmore Richardson has been pushing for additional oversight for the Office of Homeless Services.JACK TOMCZUK / METRO FILE

Contracts were manipulated, and debts were carried from one year to the next, according to the investigation. The OIG did not allege any criminal activity, though Mayor Cherelle Parker hired an outside accounting firm to help conduct a full audit. The results have not yet been released.

In addition to the fiscal issues, Gilmore Richardson’s office has been focusing on conditions inside the city’s shelter system. During a May 20 hearing on the legislation, homeless advocates – many currently or very recently unhoused – testified about unsanitary bathrooms, expired food, unhelpful staff and poor building conditions.

At that committing meeting, Gilmore Richardson and a few of the advocates discussed reports of retaliation against homeless people pushing for the ombudsperson legislation. She also denied sending “spies” into the shelters.

Gilmore Richardson, near the end of Thursday’s Council session, pleaded for her colleagues to support another bill crafted in response to the OHS saga. The legislation would eliminate an exemption that allows select departments to bypass the normal municipal contracting procedures when working with nonprofit organizations.

“I know change brings fear,” she said. “I know change brings fear mongering, bullying and more attempts for complacency.”

It was not immediately clear specifically what Gilmore Richardson was referring to, and there have been no hearings on the bill.

The OIG, in its preliminary report, recommended that the city evaluate the nonprofit exemption, and the City Controller’s Office in April launched a probe into contracts that take advantage of the special rule.