Life plans can change suddenly. Understanding the full truth of that is something Rosanne Haggerty shares with the chronically homeless people she has helped for the past 20 years. Haggerty’s senior year at Tufts University was full of plans for law school—but a thesis paper she was writing on Thomas Merton forced some self-examination. The result? She postponed law school for a year, choosing to volunteer at a shelter run by New York’s famed Covenant House. In many ways it was an extension of the community giving she’d done with her large family (she was one of eight children) every week after church in West Hartford, Connecticut. This time, though, the service became her life’s calling. Her stint at Covenant House was followed by seven years at Brooklyn Catholic Charities, where she developed housing.

Homelessness of the type being seen in the mid-1980s was still fairly new: a result of changes in policy that were forcing the mentally ill onto the mean streets. Through her work on the front lines during this new era of homelessness, Haggerty developed an understanding that, without housing, no other component of a successful life could fully come together. She began dreaming of a different way.

Today, Haggerty is leading Community Solutions, a new national not-for-profit organization that grows the capacity of communities to prevent and end homelessness. It is the national realization of what she has spent more than 20 years working on in New York state: Common Ground, the largest developer of supportive housing in the country.

Community Solutions brings tested innovations in reducing homelessness to a national scale and advances new models of homelessness prevention and community development. The 100,000 Homes Campaign is a cornerstone initiative that coordinated the efforts of national organizations and local communities to collectively house 100,000 homeless individuals and families. In June 2014—ahead of schedule—Community Solutions announced that 101,000 men and women (including 30,000 veterans) had found permanent supportive housing.

With Community Solutions, Haggerty is continuing her life’s work to house the chronically homeless because she believes fervently that homelessness can be solved. “From city to city, country to country, the homeless bear a striking similarity. They are the mentally ill; graduates of foster care; those released from prisons and jails without a home or job to go to; victims of domestic violence,”[1] she has said.

Haggerty’s approach at Common Ground (and now Community Solutions) is to provide attractive and affordable housing for homeless and low-income individuals. Using meticulous research based on scientific models to guide its decisions, Common Ground provides outreach first to the most vulnerable: those who have been on the streets the longest or who are most compromised by their homelessness in terms of health or future rehabilitation prospects.

Common Ground started with the purchase of a single building on Times Square—an area that was then known as “homeless hell.” At the time of its purchase, the Times Square Hotel was being used as an emergency shelter by the city of New York. It had 1,700 building-code violations.[2] Haggerty renovated the building and created a cohesive community of “rough sleepers”—or the chronically homeless—and individuals and families who were living on the edge. Her vision included the necessary support that would allow this disparate community to reintegrate into society and flourish—and it did. The 20-block area around the newly renovated hotel experienced an 87% drop in homelessness, thanks to Haggerty’s efforts and vision.

Haggerty has since become a true real-estate developer, with a degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Historic Preservation. She oversaw the transformation of the 11 beautiful residences that comprise the Common Ground list of properties. In what sounds like a real estate brochure, Common Ground boasts, “Our buildings offer amenities such as rehearsal space, exercise rooms, computer labs, roof top terraces, and on-site laundry facilities. Each fully furnished apartment has a private bath, and a kitchenette with cooking facilities and a refrigerator. Property management and social service staff are located on-site during normal business hours and 24-hour security is featured in all buildings.” The tenants, once thought lost to society, pay 30% of their income towards rent, whether the source is income from earnings or from government benefits.

Common Ground operates 1,600 units of property in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Westchester County, and Connecticut. City managers around the world are taking note. The style of supported housing with services that Common Ground provides costs $36 a night to operate. Compare that to $54 for a bed in the city shelter, $164 for a jail cell bed, $467 for a bed in a psychiatric ward, or $1185 for a hospital bed.

The practice that guides Haggerty’s work, both at Common Ground and at Community Solutions, rests on seven basic tenets:

  1. Information: the problem can’t be solved if it can’t be dimensioned
  2. Focus on the chronic homeless: start with the most vulnerable
  3. Housing First: skip shelters and transitional programs
  4. Prevention: close the front door into homelessness
  5. Communication: solving homelessness is everyone’s business
  6. Governance: accountability for results
  7. Leadership: political will to get the job done[3]

Haggerty has always believed that homelessness is a problem that can be solved—and she has been giving credence to her belief through the success of her long-term effort to provide supportive housing to the homeless.

Nonprofit Nutshell: Community Solutions is spreading the work begun by founder Rosanne Haggerty at Common Ground—a pioneering nonprofit aimed at ending homelessness In New York—to cities across the nation and worldwide. Community Solutions’ 100,000 homes campaign exceeded their nationwide goal: collectively housing 100,000 of the nation’s most chronically homeless individuals and families by July, 2014, and they have set their sites on ending chronic homeless in the United States completely. It works to achieve that goal by coordinating national organizations and local community efforts. Founder Rosanne Haggerty is a 2010 recipient of an Elfenworks In Harmony with Hope award.

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[1] Rosanne Haggerty, Ending Homelessness in South Australia, Adelaide Thinkers in Residence, July 2005. [2]Jina Moore, Christian Science Monitor, September 7, 2009. [3] Op cit., Haggerty.

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