Mini Case Study: How Common Ground reinvented its homelessness strategy
By standard measures, Rosanne Haggerty and her staff at Common Ground had achieved stunning success attacking the problem of homelessness in New York in the 1990s. Haggerty had won a massive battle converting The Times Square Hotel into the “largest permanent supportive housing project in the nation,” with 652 units for low-income and homeless individuals, as well as people living with HIV/AIDS. The organization garnered top accolades. But when Haggerty and her colleagues looked around the Times Square neighborhood, they didn’t see a noticeable decline in the number of people sleeping in doorways and living in the public spaces just a few blocks from Common Ground’s flagship achievement.
This halting realization caused everybody at Common Ground to regroup. They began to wonder whether they really understood the problem of homelessness. So they decided to go directly to the source, interviewing over 100 homeless individuals to find out what was keeping them on the streets. Haggerty learned that their assumptions about homelessness had, in fact, been way off base. They had imagined a “conveyor belt” model of homelessness—with people moving sequentially from the streets to shelters to housing. If homeless individuals became aware of the shelter system they would naturally move into shelters. If affordable and accessible housing options were made available to people in shelters, they would jump at the opportunities—or so they thought.
It turned out that many chronically homeless individuals had no desire to enter the shelter system or even into affordable housing. Why? Some found the application process unfriendly and intimidating. Some felt the rules were arbitrary and disrespectful. On the street, they had lots of problems — but they had freedom. And they deeply valued their independence.
In 2003 Haggerty and her team implemented a “Street to Home” program to cut through the bureaucracy that intimidated and alienated the homeless. One of the most important initiatives was Safe Havens, a customized housing model targeted at clients who had spent an average of seven and a half years on the street. Safe Havens had fewer rules for entry: no sobriety requirements, no curfews and no compulsion to enter into other rehabilitation and support services.
Homelessness in Times Square has declined by 87% since Common Ground began its Street to Home program. This initiative was met with such success that in 2007 Mayor Bloomberg officially adopted Common Ground’s model and strategy to tackle homelessness throughout the city. Since that time, street homelessness has declined 47% in New York City, and Common Ground has received the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, the Peter Drucker Award for Non-Profit Innovation and the World Habitat Award from the United Nations. Common Ground is now expanding its impact beyond the New York area and becoming a national organization.