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Mini Case Study: How Common Ground reinvented its homelessness strategy

,    /   May 11th, 2010Mini Case Studies

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.

Photo: SamPac

10 Responses

  1. Danya says:

    Very awesome.

    Love hearing about organizations that are truly concerned with solving problems, not just pushing out theories of change w/o useful evaluation about whether or not they work.


  2. Nikola says:

    Great example of organizational interpersonal abilities. This organization understands that with time comes the responsibility of reevaluating the structure of what once was very successful; that is how organizations survive and progress is made. Great story. Thank you!

  3. Kevin Lately says:

    Understanding the Freedom issue with Homeless people is Epic. I was a homeless 16 year old Teenager. I could not let anyone know I was homeless; or I would have been pulled into “The System.” I had a job & was still in school. I lived under buildings, slept in storerooms @ work and would hide in the School basement. I did everything I could not to lose my Freedom. Most Shelters today still don’t understand: That Dirty mumbling unkept man in front of them is a person waiting for Dignity to find Himself again
    I got lucky, finished school & got off the street. Today When Im driving down the Street I still look @ places where I might sleep. Now there’s Common Ground.

  4. Paul says:

    I too was homeless. It took a while to drop all the habits of homelessness, but I couldn’t have done it if someone hadn’t helped me with a place to live first, no strings attached. I would never have done so with a complicated entry process with certain prerequisites and standards.

    As a former homeless person, it’s gratifying to hear that an organization like Common Ground is thoughtfully listening to the people they are aiming to help.

  5. My colleagues and I are grateful to Kevin and Paul for expressing, eloquently, what we’ve heard from many people that we’ve encountered on the street. Common Ground is now working with partners to bring communities throughout the country together in a national effort -the 100,000 Homes Campaign-to connect 100,00 vulnerable homeless people with stable homes over the next three years. We want ato demonstrate that homelessness is solvable if we focus on the values and possibilities that Kevin and Paul speak to in their comments.

    • James says:

      I love what you and your team have done, Rosanne. Kudos to you all.

      I’d like to know more about the path that led to Street to Home’s success. The story here reads as if there were big realizations and discoveries about how to effectively intervene, implying your team didn’t have that knowledge about your target market beforehand. That’s hard to buy (anyone who has been around the homeless for even very short periods of time understands that many have no desire to enter “the system” or conform to rules). Unless my assumption is wrong here–if so, tell me!–this wasn’t a knowledge issue. It was an execution one, correct? I’m curious what were the actual obstacles back in the 90s to simplifying the application process, teasing out a reasonable rule system, and overall executing on your ideal approach?

  6. [...] read the original article, click here. Building Openings Apply Now The Hollander: 2010 Construction [...]

  7. [...] And it looks like they are doing just that in New York City. They have already reduced homelessness in Times Square by 87% and throughout the city by 47%.  Eradicating homelessness in the largest city in the country, that’s pretty [...]

  8. [...] the New York City-based organization Common Ground, whose pioneering anti-homelessness model has succeeded brilliantly in its home town and elsewhere. Over the past year, Common Ground has knitted together a national [...]

  9. Update 2013:

    <a href="""New York City has seen a 73 percent increase in the number of homeless families in the last decade, according to findings released Tuesday by the Coalition for the Homeless." – (03.13) on Homelessness under mayor Bloomberg.