Mass homelessness has existed in the United States for nearly 20 years. In Rosanne Haggerty's opinion, that's way too long. "It's scandalous, because homelessness is a problem that's solvable," says Haggerty, the founder and executive director of Common Ground Community, a New York - based nonprofit housing-and-community-development organization. "There are so many terrible things that are beyond our control. This isn't."
Haggerty knows. In 1991, a year after founding Common Ground, she attracted national attention by partnering with corporations such as J.P. Morgan & Co. and Clorox to purchase and renovate the Times Square Hotel — a once-stately landmark that had fallen into crime-ridden decay. In less than four years, she turned the hotel into a 652-unit supported-housing facility with on-site social services to help residents with everything from learning job skills to staying off drugs. By 1994, the Times Square was up and running, a success by any measure. Haggerty's next move? To buy another building — the similarly ruinous Prince George Hotel — and do it all over again.
Since then, Haggerty has continued to garner recognition — including a 2001 MacArthur "genius" grant — and Common Ground has continued to grow: The organization currently has 170 employees, many of whom are its own formerly homeless tenants. But Common Ground is more than bigger. Haggerty and her staff are at the forefront of a movement to reconsider the basic assumptions about homelessness. In the process, they're creating solutions that are equal parts innovation and common sense. "A few years ago, we began thinking about our mission much more ambitiously," Haggerty says. "We're daring to ask, What would it take to end homelessness?"
To get at the answer, Common Ground is conducting original research: According to Haggerty, widespread information about exactly why people become and remain homeless doesn't exist. What Common Ground has found through on-the-street head counts, interviews, and homeless focus groups reframes the whole housing issue. "It's not just an argument about the quantity of housing," Haggerty says. "There aren't enough types of housing available." In other words, people are homeless for different reasons — which necessitates a variety of responses.
For that reason, Common Ground will open several types of housing over the next few years. One is First Step Housing, a modern variation on the so-called flophouse. Flophouses have an unsavory connotation, Haggerty acknowledges. Nevertheless, she and her staff have found that a demand exists for what flophouses offer: a cheap, secure place to stay a short time without having to answer any questions. Haggerty's response: Improve on the flophouse model. She's worked with New York architects and traveled as far as Japan to investigate the space-efficient "capsule hotels" and come up with a small — but comfortable and attractive — housing unit.
Haggerty's most ambitious endeavor is her "mini-England" project, which Common Ground is set to launch on the West Side of Manhattan. Inspired by Tony Blair's example — three years ago, the British prime minister vowed to reduce street homelessness by two-thirds in three years — Common Ground is taking an aggressive and comprehensive approach to quantifying the problem. "We're going to count and document who's homeless," Haggerty says. "We're going to establish a target for reducing that number. We're going to organize all of the existing service providers to work together in a more focused way without overlapping resources. And we're going to start with a case-management philosophy: What's it going to take to get each one of these people who's now homeless into some type of stable accommodation?"
To most Americans, the homeless are an unfortunate but essentially faceless lot — a sea of people who somehow ended up deeply unlucky. To Haggerty and those who work with her, the homeless are individuals with specific stories. Common Ground now provides 1,200 housing units around New York City, and Haggerty still knows the residents by name — and by ailment and personal needs. Seen from up close, Haggerty has found, the problem of homelessness is a compelling human story. "I believe," she says, "that this is urgent work."
A version of this article appeared in the January 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.