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Integrating Systems and Improving Services for Homeless Families in Chicago

A foundation's investment improved homeless services for all Chicago families.

In 2008, the Robert R. McCormick and Polk Bros. Foundations partnered with the City of Chicago to augment a 2007 grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation that focused on assisting homeless mothers and their children. The Chicago partnership launched FACT Assertive Community Treatment), a program for families who have the hardest time maintaining stable housing. Within participating families, the moms usually are dealing with a mental health diagnosis and/or substance use disorder and many have been involved with the foster care or child welfare systems. In addition, at least one of their children has or is at-risk of emotional, behavioral, or attachment disorders, or developmental delays.

FACT adapted the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) model―originally intended for homeless adults―to help families stabilize and improve their housing, employment, family well-being, and health status. FACT employs a multi-disciplinary, highly coordinated team of specialists from organizations with different areas of expertise to provide intense services while maintaining manageable caseloads. Children receive regular developmental screenings, and those with complex issues benefit from specialized early education programs. As a result of these intensive, client-focused, coordinated services,FACT families made great progress. They found and stayed in permanent housing, the mental health of both the moms and the children improved, and the children began to meet developmental milestones.

The key to FACT’s success was the recognition that homeless young families face profound challenges that typically extend beyond housing to include mental and physical health, child development, education, and employment. Traditionally, public systems addressing these needs are fragmented, making it difficult for mothers to access a full range of resources for themselves and their children. To rectify this situation,FACT used a portion of its foundation grant to hire a full-time ‘systems integration specialist’ who worked to reduce barriers and decrease or eliminate service gaps. The specialist developed and manages theFACT Planning Coalition, which includes representatives from child development, housing, education, mental health, substance use, and vocational systems as well as consumers. Over the last three years, the 40-member Planning Coalition has used four strategies to promote long-term change: coalition building, cross-training, coordination of systems-level initiatives, and advocacy.

Impact on the Wider Community

With a focus on systems change, the project extended its impact beyond those families directly served byFACT to impact all homeless families in our community. The Planning Coalition successfully advocated for homeless families to become a priority population for federal home visiting dollars in Illinois. After city-wide cross-trainings with child welfare, early intervention, and homeless services providers, all participants reported a significant increase in their knowledge of the other systems and an increased ability to identify children who may need specialized services.

Further, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services made simple and cost-free changes to ensure that youth should have ID and other important documents before emancipating. A new pilot to increase the capacity of homeless service providers to identify and refer children who show signs of development delays, to co-locate early intervention services within shelters, and to develop polices and protocols that lead to coordinated and continued early intervention services for homeless children will ensure that lasting change occurs.

As funders, being a part of FACT has been very rewarding. It’s been exciting to be able to support families who are most in need and, at the same time, support city-wide systems change. As members of theFACT Planning Coalition, our foundations are actively involved in the program’s direction-especially at the systems level-which enables us to truly value and understand the importance of our investment. The investment in FACT cost far less than the savings from the system impact that resulted from its efforts. We see clearly that grants for systems integration can be catalytic.


The FACT collaboration includes lead partner Beacon Therapeutic and Diagnostics Center, along with Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights, Inner Voice, and Voices for Illinois Children.FACT was launched with support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, McCormick Foundation, Polk Bros. Foundation, Prince Charitable Trusts, and the City of Chicago.

The 2007 Conrad N. Hilton Foundation initiative was implemented in collaboration with The National Center on Family Homelessness, National Alliance to End Homelessness, and ZERO TO THREE: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families. Grants were made to four program sites in Pomona, California; Antelope Valley, California; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Chicago, Illinois.

Debbie Reznick is a Senior Program Officer at Polk Bros. Foundation.

Bill Koll is the Director of the Communities Program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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