Meals served and beds filled — those are some of the statistics Pinellas County has long relied on to determine if publicly funded social service groups are performing well.
But whether the millions in grants have rescued people from homelessness or led to jobs for the unemployed is essentially unknown. Starting next fiscal year, county officials hope to change that by writing new reporting requirements into their contracts with more than 200 aid groups and asking for more data on outcomes. The move would need County Commission approval.
"We love to help, but now we need to make sure that the help changed things and it wasn't just a nice thing to do," said Gwendolyn Warren, director of the county's Department of Health and Human Services.
Pinellas could begin requiring programs that place homeless people in transitional housing to show proof that the recipients haven't returned to the streets. It could ask groups that help the unemployed for data on how many people have found jobs and held on to them months or years later.
"Sometimes counting that is going to be a challenge," said Michael Raposa, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul in St. Petersburg. His organization receives funding from the county to feed and shelter the homeless, about 600 to 900 of whom it serves per day. But tracking outcomes for a homeless shelter, which exists to give people a place to stay, could be difficult.
Still, Raposa thinks the change is a good one.
"Any entity that's getting tax dollars should be able to show the general benefit to the public," he said.
Hillsborough County is also moving in this direction — it is giving the nonprofits and aid groups it helps fund two years to become more businesslike and adept at using data.
What data Pinellas does have on its assistance programs' performance is mixed. Earlier this year, Warren and her staff cross-referenced a list of people who benefited from the county's homeless assistance program against a state employment database. Of the 1,700 people they located, 62 percent still had jobs, a figure that Warren said was "pretty high." But most were making minimum wage and were eligible for federal aid.
"We'd kept a bunch of poor people from becoming homeless people," she said. "But the problem is that they were still very poor and still eligible for government services, so we did nothing to get them out of the next crisis."
Warren said that Pinellas needs to rethink how it spends its money, which may mean more commitments on the part of beneficiaries. In the future, the county could require some people who get housing assistance to attend job-training courses. Aid for people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol could be tied to whether they complete recovery programs.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.