Bright Spot: Rockford, IL | Non-Traditional Engagement

September 20, 2019

Partner with non-traditional or non-housing partners (e.g. food pantries, law enforcement, faith-based organizations) to engage clients in conversation about housing and connect them to the coordinated entry system

Check out this bright Spot if…

● You want to increase the quality of outreach coverage 

● You want to try it!


Setting a goal was one of the first steps that led Rockford to engage their chronically homeless in non-traditional ways. In July of 2016, they recognized a need to engage chronically homeless substance users living on the streets in the South Main area of town. Their initial goal was to do outreach there at least twice a week. Set out to fulfill this quota, the team drove around frequently to find the places where people experiencing chronic homelessness tended to congregate. This led them to a few unconventional places for outreach workers: notably, the liquor store. Once there, Angie and other outreach workers would eliminate as many barriers as possible in an effort to initiate conversation and slowly build relationships. They found that even holding a clipboard with an intake form could present a barrier in engaging with someone, so their first step was simply to start talking to them freely — often employing humor along the way — to get a sense of what his or her needs were. The outreach workers quickly learned that it’s important to begin this conversation without displaying any sort of motive except a genuine curiosity in and interest for the person’s needs, and without talking down to the individual (i.e. speaking in an overly simple way) or talking up (using jargon or big words). 

Rockford tracks all of the essential indicators of progress and results, including: inflow, number of people housed, number of returns to the system, number of actively homeless, number of folks left to house, number of people moved to inactive, and number of people returned to active and unhoused. For this Bright Spot, they emphasized the two data points that showed their success: the number of actively homeless went down and the number left to house went up, because they were successfully identifying and engaging with people seeking housing. 

The Rockford team noted that accountability to measures and outcomes is crucial, and they foster this in two ways: first, by a whiteboard on their office wall with the names of all chronically homeless individuals to track their housing placements, and second through public reporting to the city during monthly RockStat meetings.

Key Action: Serving Immediate Needs of Individuals 

Once the outreach worker learned about some of the person’s immediate needs, they set out to assist them with those needs even if — and this is the crucial part — their needs didn’t relate directly to housing. Time and again, supporting the individual in this way served the vital purpose of building trust with them, which eventually led them to gain trust in an offer of housing. Examples of immediate needs ranged from adult diapers, to a place to watch the World Series, to medical advocacy for a man whose legs had been amputated. A few of these are highlighted below: 

The World Series: One of Rockford’s hardest to engage was a man who struggles with severe alcoholism. During a conversation with an outreach worker, he revealed that he really wanted to watch the World Series. Seizing the opportunity, the outreach team quickly placed him into a short-term stay at a hotel (see Resources below for more detail) so that he could do just that. Although this individual ultimately left the hotel, he later sought out services and even came to the office, sober, to fill out an application for housing. As a result, he is currently housed! ● Prosthetic Legs: Outreach workers were very familiar with a chronically homeless man whose legs has been amputated. He often slept in his wheelchair at the gas station and resisted outreach efforts. Yet one day, having had a cup of coffee, this individual got to talking to an outreach worker and disclosed that his doctor wouldn’t let him get prosthetic legs until he was housed. Once again, the outreach worker reacted quickly, and connected the individual to housing in a hotel to fulfill the doctor’s request. Similar to the previous example, this man eventually ended up leaving the hotel, but that experience of being housed led him to seek out the services of an emergency shelter — an offer he had rejected before. He is currently housed in an Assisted Living facility, and his alcohol use has decreased significantly.

Key Action: Utilize Non-Traditional Outreach Workers

Another way in which the Rockford outreach team implemented a non-traditional approach was by soliciting the help of the community and using personal relationships to bridge the gap between a chronically homeless individual and the homeless services system. For example, one of Rockford’s local news anchors has become an unconventional “outreach worker” by volunteering time on Sundays to engage with people experiencing homelessness in the community. Through this effort, and perhaps due to her status as a public figure, some of Rockford’s most chronically homeless individuals have developed meaningful relationships with her that ultimately connected them to housing opportunities. 

Yet another example of an unconventional “outreach worker” was a man who went to high school with an individual living in shelter who had previously refused to engage with anyone. In an attempt to find someone with whom this man might feel more comfortable, the outreach team tracked down his one of his former high school classmates. The next time that the traditional outreach worker attempted to engage with the man living in shelter, he brought this friend. The connection back to the homeless individual’s childhood was so meaningful that he lit up and became engaged — not only with his old classmates, but also with the services that the more traditional outreach worker was hoping to provide.

Failing forward moments

One of Rockford’s greatest lessons learned is that, “People need a home, not just a house.” Initially, their team was trying to house people so rapidly that they were less mindful of finding an ideal match to housing, and also neglected to ensure that individuals had all the things that they needed to be successful in their new environment, such as furniture and food. Once they centered their housing practices on finding and building a home for their clients, the housing retention rate stabilized — a crucial lesson for sustaining the end to homelessness! 

Want more information?

Contact the Rockford, IL Administration (