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Systems Integration: Innovation at Work
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This article is one of a series outlining the work of Strengthening At Risk and Homeless Young Mothers and Children, an initiative to improve the housing, health, and development of young mothers and children who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. This initiative is funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and 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. The Initiative includes four program sites located in Pomona, California; Antelope Valley, California; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Chicago, Illinois. This article outlines the specific work of the FACT (Family Assertive Community Treatment) project in Chicago, Illinois.

In 2008, Beacon Therapeutic Diagnostic & Treatment Center and Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights began partnering on the FACT (Family Assertive Community Treatment) project in Chicago, Illinois. The focus is on providing intensive supports for the most vulnerable families. The FACT project uses a team-based service model that results in strong outcomes for mothers and children experiencing homelessness. The inclusion of Systems Integration Manager Ann Marie Grimberg as part of the team extended the reach of the program even further. Hired at the onset of the program, she focuses on bridging service gaps and enhancing cross-systems interactions. Ultimately, outcomes improve not only for those enrolled in FACT, but also for all the families who are homeless and at-risk in Chicago.

Ms. Grimberg states, “The FACT project has given us the opportunity to have a broad impact on the lives of young homeless families in Chicago.” To achieve her goals, she employs four primary strategies: (1) coalition building; (2) cross-training; (3) coordination of systems-level initiatives; and (4) advocacy. Today, more than 40 diverse stakeholders—representing resource agencies, consumers, funders, and public support systems—work together to serve Chicago’s most vulnerable families.

Some notable successes of this work include:

  • The creation of a partnership with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Young women enroll in FACT before they age out of the foster care system, enabling services (and housing) to be in place before they lose access to the resources of the child welfare system.
  • The DCFS now completes an exit checklist for those individuals emancipating from the child welfare system to ensure they have appropriate documentation (identification, Social Security card, medical records, etc.) upon their departure.
  • Families experiencing homelessness are one of the two priority populations (the other is immigrant families) for Illinois’ use of the new Federal home visiting funds under health care reform.

Bill Koll, Director of the Communities Program at the McCormick Foundation and member of the FACT Planning Coalition states, “Being a part of FACT has been a truly rewarding experience. As a funder, it’s exciting to be able to both directly support families that are most in need and, at the same time, to support city-wide change. As a member of the Planning Coalition, I am actively involved in the program’s direction—especially at the systems level—which enables me to truly value and understand the importance of our investment.”

Ms. Grimberg acknowledges that the task at first seemed overwhelming, given how many different sectors and resources somehow “touched” the lives of these families. Those days are over, as she now has connections throughout the community. When asked if she had any advice for others trying to do this work, Ms. Grimberg shared the following:

  1. Identify the service needs of the consumers and target those goals. Conducting a needs assessment of the gaps in services for the population you serve can provide a short list of the most important needs to target.
  2. Start with those groups who want to work with you. Many agencies and programs would greatly benefit your work. Go where there is energy and synergy—engage invested programs that you think can make simple changes to improve the situation of your population dramatically. After a few successes, others will not only follow, but will actually contact you to participate and ask for advice.
  3. Be neutral—do not judge current practices. The goal of systems integration is not to lay blame on a particular system for “failing” a family or individual. Instead, the idea is to build a foundation of cooperation and information sharing that can create positive changes for vulnerable populations. Often, an agency or program is not aware of the unintended effect of policies or procedures.

The systems-level work of the FACT program underscores the important roles that mainstream programs and other agencies can play in the lives of families experiencing homelessness. With the investment of one staff member, this project extended its impact to support the needs of all vulnerable families in the community.

Debra Medeiros is Director of Programs at The National Center on Family Homelessness and Samantha Batko is Program and Policy Analyst for Youth at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

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