A Board of Supervisors panel this afternoon took up a Civil Grand Jury report that found San Francisco is on the right track with its push to create more permanent housing for homeless people but that new tools are needed to make sure service dollars aren’t being wasted.

In particular, it was interesting to watch members of the board’s Government Audit & Oversight Committee and Newsom administration officials tip-toe around the Grand Jury’s call for a computerized tracking system that confidentially assigns a number to each client of city-funded homeless services agencies to determine which programs are working best.

“The Jury believes that such a tracking system, properly designed and maintained, will be an invaluable tool for establishing the effectiveness and cost effectiveness” of city-funded service providers, according to a report, titled “The Homeless Have Homes, But They Are Still on the Street.”

The tip-toeing was on display because supervisors and administration officials either don’t want to take on or share the view of advocates for homeless people who see such a tracking system as a violation of privacy and potential obstacle to getting care to people who are distrustful of how the information would be used by authorities.

Dariush Kayhan, the mayor’s chief homeless policy director, never addressed the call for the tracking system directly but contended the city is keeping a close enough eye on the dozens of nonprofit agencies under contract to deliver homeless services.

“We know what they are doing,” Kayhan said, adding, “I am very comfortable with the nonprofit agencies and how they are performing.”

Supervisor Eric Mar suggested more attention on monitoring how homeless services dollars are spent might detract from the services themselves.

“I want to see strong services to people on the street,” Mar said.

The grand jury recommended the tracking system in part out of concern that public support for spending on homeless services could be threatened by a misperception that progress isn’t being made.

For example, the grand jury found that the city is ahead of its goal to open 3,000 new supportive housing units, dwellings linked to addiction, mental-health, job-training and other rehabilitative and restorative services.

Moreover, the emphasis on development of this type of permanent supportive housing–combined with a shift in policy to providing care instead of cash to homeless people–has coincided with a decline in homelessness, the grand jury found. At last count, in January 2007, there were 6,377 homeless people in San Francisco, down 26 percent from a 2002 count of 8,640, according to the report.

But, not surprisingly, the progress has come at a cost, the report notes. In fiscal year 2008, the city budgeted $186 million for direct services to homeless people and people at risk of becoming homeless, with about half going to about 80 private, mostly nonprofit social service organizations, the grand jury reported. In fiscal year 1994, according to a Board of Supervisors budget analyst report, direct spending on homeless services was $31.1 million, suggesting a six-fold increase in outlays to address homelessness.

At the same time, the grand jury found, the city’s more robust spending hasn’t coincided with a decline in panhandling, public drinking and drug dealing, sleeping in doorways, and other behaviors the public associates with homelessness.

“The City’s residents are justifiably skeptical of the quantifiable successes,” the report states, “because their eyes tell them a different story as they walk downtown or in their neighborhoods.”

An important next step, the grand jury concluded, is a tracking system that allows city officials to follow clients of homeless services through the system so they can determine which programs helping most and which might be contributing to the status quo.

“The City clearly has the will to end chronic homelessness,” the report states. “The challenge is how to house the homeless without creating a new, ever-growing and unsustainable entitlement program.”

Please make sure your comment adheres to our comment policy. If it doesn't, it may be deleted. Repeat violations may cause us to revoke your commenting privileges. No one wants that!