Rosanne Haggerty is working to end homelessness by housing the chronically homeless and convincing governments and developers to commit to large-scale projects that serve as models for public policy. Common Ground identifies the chronically homeless within their communities and then works to finance an effective alternative housing system. Rosanne has created over 1,800 housing units and another 3,000 are in development. Together they represent a variety of forms, settings and support arrangements that can respond to the range of individual circumstances and needs encountered among the homeless. This focused strategy lifts vulnerable people out of homelessness, dramatically reduces the presence of homeless people living in public spaces, and in the process reduces the demand on emergency services and redirects resources to where they belong: Creating additional supported housing to end homelessness.
The New Idea
In 1991 when Rosanne Haggerty successfully converted New York’s historic Time Square Hotel from a dilapidated drug den, nicknamed “Homeless Hell”, into the nation’s largest supported housing development for the formerly homeless, she accomplished a previously unimaginable feat: She demonstrated that a permanent solution to homelessness could be provided for a fraction of the cost of the conventional short-term services such as shelters that maintained individuals in homelessness. She proved as well that homeless individuals could be integrated into a mixed income building, and that an ambitious project for the homeless could serve as a catalyst for community economic development. In 1999, when she proved that her success was replicable by transforming The Prince George Hotel, she did another unimaginable thing: She provided an emerging “housing first movement” among homeless advocates with large-scale, sustained proof of its viability. The housing first movement now has many champions but Rosanne’s creativity and leadership stand out because she unites disparate interests in creating large-scale, cost effective demonstrations that homelessness can be ended.
Rosanne’s new idea stemmed from studying the data related to homeless people, which reveals three important facts. First, not all homeless people experience homelessness in the same way. In fact, a subgroup now classified as “chronically homeless” represents just 15 percent of the estimated 2 million people who experience homelessness each year in the U.S. Yet these chronically homeless individuals typically consume over 50 percent of the estimated $8B (according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness) spent by governments, charities, and emergency rooms in responding to homelessness in the U.S. The chronically homeless are typically those seen sleeping on the streets year-after-year and often have severe complicating problems: Drug dependency, physical illness or psychological impairment. Although 40,000 agencies work with the homeless in the U.S., only a handful systematically studies the patterns of homelessness and apply research to practice.
Second, her team’s original research led to new approaches to reducing street homelessness and street deaths. Their predictive studies enable Rosanne and her colleagues to prioritize for housing assistance to specific individuals who are the most vulnerable on the street, or are likely to become or remain chronically homeless.
Third, Rosanne demonstrated that given stable housing, a positive integrated (formerly homeless and others) community, and a customizable set of supports, formerly homeless people could avoid ever being homeless again. When homeless individuals move into a Common Ground community they agree to pay their rent, to conduct themselves in a neighborly manner and to create and enact their own success plans. Common Ground deliberately stokes the will-power necessary to fight these internal fights for personal restoration by surrounding community members with people who fight similar fights and with support services, all within an environment of beauty and mutual assistance.
Another important element of the Common Ground solution to homelessness is integration. Common Ground integrates low-income residents with the formerly homeless residents in buildings that intentionally create an affirmative community life. They also integrate access to services that they know their residents need. For example, counseling, health screenings, financial literacy seminars and employment assistance are all available to residents onsite in a Common Ground community.
Homelessness emerged as a major crisis in the U.S. in the 1980s and has remained a crisis for nearly thirty years because we have not developed strategic, community-wide approaches that prioritize those who are the most vulnerable, or that focus on housing and long-term solutions.
The tragic flaw in the traditional response to homelessness is that it has concentrated resources in crisis-level interventions such as soup kitchens, temporary shelters, and emergency rooms rather than in permanent solutions. Of the approximately 2 million people who experience homelessness each year in the U.S., the vast majority is homeless for a short period and resolve their crisis with the help of family, friends or limited assistance from public sources. However, the chronic homeless experience homelessness very differently, remaining trapped in homelessness for long periods, piecing together emergency services in the absence of help they need to get back into housing.
This failed response to the needs of the most vulnerable homeless evolved into practice in part because homelessness was misdiagnosed as a monolithic condition, with one- size-fits-all solutions.
In addition to this inadequately calibrated service response, the affordable housing industry in the U.S. has erected de facto barriers against the homeless. Even not for profit landlords and managing agents are often reluctant to accept as tenants those who have fallen into homelessness. Despite ample evidence that with support, even those with long histories of homelessness make fine tenants, issues of stigma limit the options of homeless individuals and families in re-establishing themselves in housing.
“You begin ending homelessness with a home” Rosanne states, “but you don’t end there.” Common Ground has taken a diagnostic data-backed and targeted approach to ending homelessness. Their strategy has three parts:
1. Target an area that has a high degree of homeless such as the 250-block area of New York City that Common Ground targeted to prove their case.
2. Create housing options, reusing troubled properties wherever possible, to create high quality affordable housing for the homeless and low-wage workers that complements community development efforts.
3. When selecting tenants, prioritize individuals who have been homeless the longest and are the most vulnerable, and connect them with the help they need to rebuild their lives once they are stably housed.
The fourth and newest part of this strategy is to work through networks of government and nonprofit leaders to spread these solutions across the U.S. and around the world.
This strategy resulted in an 87 percent reduction in street homelessness in Times Square and provided Rosanne the credibility to challenge other municipalities to adopt it. Common Ground now operates a range of properties housing over 2,200 people, and has assisted groups in replicating their work in Toronto, London, Australia and in a number of American cities. Common Ground has now expanded its presence to Connecticut, upstate New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C.
In rapid succession, Rosanne earned a MacArthur “Genius Award” in 2001 in the U.S. and Common Ground’s Prince George was recognized by the United Nations and England’s Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) with The World Habitat Award in 2003.
Rosanne’s strategy of rescuing aging buildings in New York and turning them into permanent housing for low-income and formerly homeless people has caught the attention of dozens of mayors through her work with the United States Interagency Council for Homelessness (USICH). The USICH is a federal agency that was revived in 2004 with a directive to come up with an entrepreneurial and comprehensive federal approach to end homelessness. USICH executive director, Philip Mangano praises Rosanne for leading the way by creating an “Innovators Circle” of twenty mayors within USICH to serve as a test-group for the best innovations in ending homelessness.
Mayors like her strategy because it rehabs aging city building stock, increases attractiveness of cities to businesses by reducing unsightly homelessness, turns many of the homeless (who were only a drain on city resources) into tax-payers, and reduces strain on city services such as emergency rooms. Building-design competitions that Rosanne has used to choose architects to renovate the properties have educated the wider public about solutions to homelessness and have resulted in award-winning buildings with interiors that can include a ballroom or art gallery on some sites.
In 2003, at the height of her recognition, Rosanne decided to become systematic about how Common Ground would spread its work. Until then, she had largely been New York focused, responding to ad-hoc requests for advice and replication. She became a vocal and consistent leader in a number of homelessness networks here and abroad—especially USICH, which connected her with both federal authorities and city mayors. She also worked with Tony Blair’s government in the U.K., which concluded that its initiatives to end homelessness would also include mixed income supportive housing buildings due in large part to what Rosanne had demonstrated in New York.
In 2006, Common Ground’s board approved of turning over day-to-day operations of its properties and housing programs to an executive director so that Rosanne could commit herself full-time to the spread of her solution. This spread is being accomplished through three tactical activities:
1. Assist local government leaders in learning about and implementing Common Ground’s approach.2. Create additional housing options for the homeless by enlisting public, private, and nonprofit housing developers and operators in incorporating housing for formerly homeless people.3. Provide direct technical assistance, including co-developing projects with other municipalities.
Rosanne applied for the Ashoka Fellowship specifically because of Ashoka’s global reach, reputation, and connection with social innovators in the areas of housing development, medical care, and public private partnership—all of which she sees as relevant players in ending homelessness.
There has been a tectonic shift in the outlook for homelessness since 2003, and leaders from Philip Mangano of USICH to Diane Diacon of BSHF in the U.K. directly credit Rosanne with being a hard-driving force in getting others to believe that it is “possible, cost effective, and right” to end homelessness this way.
Strongly influenced by her parents’ practice of Catholicism, Rosanne is a champion of the social gospel which says that we all have a personal responsibility for addressing issues of poverty and loneliness.
Often described as powerful, patient, and an “applied learner”, Rosanne describes herself as someone who “believes that environments transform people and vice versa.” So she works on buildings that are in the worst shape and with people who have the most complex needs.
Rosanne says that her interest in how single people with little money lived was piqued by her parents when she was just a girl. Her parents, who lived in the suburbs of Hartford, CT, befriended elderly people who lived in “rooming houses” in the city. A rooming house is a single-room occupancy hotel much like the properties that she would later create through Common Ground.
Immediately after graduating from Amherst, her fascination with congregate housing was further stimulated while volunteering for Covenant House. For a year she lived with about sixty other volunteers in a complex in Times Square whose quarters reminded her of the rooming houses she had seen in her childhood. Though she lived in such accommodations by choice rather than necessity it reinforced to her how little space a person needed in order to feel secure.
She says that the major turning point in her life came years later when the Times Square Hotel, which was located next door to the building she used to live in at Covenant House, earned the nickname “Homeless Hell.” The building had descended into chaos and bankruptcy, and was being used as a temporary shelter for homeless families. Amidst the physical decay there were more than 1,700 building code violations in the hotel. There were also 200 long-time elderly residents and people with mental illness. The building was rife with drug selling and prostitution.
She tried to interest existing housing groups in saving the building, but when no existing groups believed the Times Square could be transformed and become a solution to homelessness, she decided to leave her own work and to take on the Times Square rescue mission. Common Ground was born.
She counts Hull-House founder Jane Addams, and Octavia Hill of Britain, a Victorian-era housing reformer and founder of the National Trust, as her role models.