The NFL’s social justice arm will help Chicago extend its mental health resources in 2023 thanks to the Inspire Change social justice initiative. The endeavor announced that Chicago’s Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement team will receive $200,000 in grant money from the organization.
The city’s CARE pilot program launched last fall in an attempt to address mental illness less through a punitive lens and more of a medical one, according to licensed clinical social worker Matthew Richards, CARE’s deputy commissioner of behavioral health. The effort integrates mental health professionals into the 911 response system to help those experiencing a behavioral health emergency — meaning police and social workers are working together to connect people to treatment. When a CARE team responds to an individual in crisis they offer de-escalation, mental health assessment, referrals to community services and transport to community-based destinations as appropriate. The CARE team conducts follow-up with individuals in crisis one day, one week and one month after the encounter.
The program just completed its first year, responding to almost 500 calls to 911 that had a mental health or substance-use component to them but no arrests. Richards is looking to utilize the NFL funds to expand CARE services to the city’s West Side and other parts of the city as well as adding a second shift to existing teams that cover 10 a.m.-10 p.m., when call volume is highest.
“We’ve shown in the first year that you can safely take a health-forward approach to 911 calls with a mental health component and get people connected to mental health resources in the community,” Richards said. “We integrated mental health professionals into our 911 call center for one shift a day; we have three different care teams that answer 911 calls. One on the North Side, one on the South Side, one on the Southwest Side, in a total of 10 community areas. The NFL support is really going to allow us to support an expansion effort. We’re grateful for the NFL’s social justice group to support the second year of implementation and helping to scale this program into new communities in Chicago.”
The NFL’s social justice arm has been offering grants to nonprofits for the past five years, said Clare Graff, NFL’s vice president of corporate social responsibility. CARE is the second Chicago-based nonprofit receiving NFL social justice funding, behind Metropolitan Family Services’ Peace Academy, a grantee in prior years.
The Inspire Change initiative supports community organizations that center their work on any one of four pillars: education, economic advancement, police-community relations and criminal justice reform. Graff said all of Inspire Change’s grant partners fit into at least one if not more of those categories. She said police-community relations was the area the NFL really wanted to build up with this grant cycle. A 10-person owner/player group makes the final grantee decisions on the invitation-only application process. The 2022 grant winners include: CARE, Atlanta Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative (PAD), Choose 180, Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services Community Assistance and Life Liaison Program (CALL), and Peace for DC.
“One thing that I’m proud of with these grants is they’re not limited just to NFL markets,” Graff said. “We really want to put dollars where help is needed. So you’ve got hyperlocal Alabama Appleseed on one hand and big national Big Brothers Big Sisters on the other, they really do run the gamut.”
What spoke to Graff and her social responsibility team about CARE? Unlike a lot of different co-responder models, CARE is evaluating in real time, with real data, what’s needed based on the nature of the 911 call. The data is being evaluated by the University of Chicago’s Health Lab. Graff said CARE’s transparency with data, still a work in progress, made CARE a standout candidate. “Being able to know that the work is transparent and that we’re able to see the data and that established, esteemed universities are studying it was really helpful,” she said.
“We really want to move toward doubling our hours of operation, expand into the West Side — East and West Garfield Park and Humboldt Park,” he said, as well as a few other community areas around the city. “We’ve chosen communities that have a consistently high volume of 911 calls with a behavioral health component. We also, of course, think about equity — geographic, racial and ethnic. We want the full diversity of our city to touch and feel the differences these teams make.”
CARE is looking to handle more types of calls. In the first year, the teams focused on no-weapon calls in which the person was not physically or verbally aggressive, as well as calls that involved a mental health disturbance in a public setting, instead of a private residence. In the second year, Richards wants to start taking suicide-threat calls or those in which the presence of a weapon might be unknown or where the person may have made verbal threats or violated public disturbance laws.
“Right now, we will sometimes go to those calls if other response teams like police or paramedic teams request our assistance, but 911 does not directly dispatch us,” he said. “We’re looking at a whole range of other calls that we think these teams would really add value to. We do have to get permission from the Illinois Department of Public Health EMS division to expand the types of calls we want to go to. It’s about expanding the number of communities we’re in so that our residents can start to touch and feel the difference that these teams can make in their community.”
The expansion will coincide with the expansion of the Chicago Department of Public Health’s citywide mental health network, city-funded outpatient mental health services provided in the city’s Trauma-Informed Centers of Care (TICC) network that include community mental health centers, federally qualified health centers, community-based organizations (CBOs) and CDPH’s mental health centers.
“In the next month or so we will be funding a mental health clinic in every single community area in the city of Chicago, all 77 community areas,” Richards said. “We’re on track this year to serve about 60,000 residents. The fact that we fund all these clinics through the health department allows our care teams to rely on our partners and the clinics we directly operate at the health department as resource referrals, as places we can transport patients, as places where we can schedule a follow-up appointment. Another big thing that we’re doing is starting to fund different types of alternative destinations, sites where we can transport a patient in lieu of them going to the emergency department or a police lockup.”
He said the city is looking into a stabilization housing program where a hotel will be bought and individuals who are experiencing homelessness and mental health and substance-use issues could be diverted into their own unit, allowing them to get primary care treatment for up to six months while they transition into permanent supportive housing. A sobering center is another diversion option where people who are acutely intoxicated can be transported to a site where they can sober up and clinicians can engage them around their substance use and try to get them connected to alcohol use disorder treatment services. Richards says CARE hopes to have both options open in 2023.
“Because our work in this space is relatively new, we want to fund what works on one hand and on the other hand, we absolutely value ingenuity,” Graff said. “We’d love to put funding wherever we can. So we try to be nimble. We try to leave room every year to bring on new grantees and roll off others who’ve had a relationship with us for a couple of years because we do want to take things into consideration like geography, how many people an organization is serving — all those things that a grantor would look for, we look for too. One of the beautiful parts of the system is we want to bring those grassroots organizations in the door, even if they may not be a long-standing organization.”
Since 2017, the NFL has provided more than $244 million to more than 40 grant partners and 600-plus grassroots organizations across the country, nearing its 10-year, $250 million commitment to social justice efforts. This includes more than 1,800 Inspire Change matching grants provided by the NFL Foundation to current NFL players for nonprofits of their choice to help reduce barriers to opportunity.
“We’re particularly heartened that the (NFL) social justice group is the one that funded us because we see what we’re doing as advancing social justice in the public health and safety space, trying to improve the level of trust that our residents have about the first responders that respond to them often in life’s most difficult moments,” Richards said.