More than 30 years ago, a nonprofit was launched in New York City to try to find permanent housing for chronically homeless people in Times Square. Now it has a national campaign that some people think could be an important first step toward ending homelessness in America.
Standing outside an elegant 15-story brick building in midtown Manhattan, Rosanne Haggerty, who runs the nonprofit Common Ground, recalls how it all began — how a former hotel became a model for housing the homeless.
"In the early '80s, I lived right next-door to the Times Square Hotel," she says. "It was back in the day when Times Square was Times Square, as we say — kind of a crazy neighborhood to say the least."
The area was known mostly for peep shows and prostitutes. It was long before anyone dreamed that Times Square would become a family destination.
Haggerty worked with the homeless at the time, and was upset to find out that the hotel was about to shut down.
"It was the largest single-room occupancy hotel in New York City," she says. "The building was practically on the verge of being condemned. It had 1,700 serious building code violations."
Trash, mildew and crack vials were everywhere. But Haggerty, then 29, saw the potential. She says she thought it made a lot of sense to fix the building up so all of the homeless people outside would have somewhere to live. And she thought it would be good to provide services, like health care and job training, so people would be more likely to stay off the streets.
Reaching Those On The Outside
It turned out that her timing was great. It was 1990, and city leaders were eager to clean up the Times Square area and to deal with New York's growing homeless problem. The federal government also had money to help. So Haggerty founded Common Ground and got to work.
Today, it's difficult to tell the Times Square Building apart from a pricey Manhattan condo, with its marble lobby, gold-trimmed ceilings and art deco light fixtures. Haggerty points to two elegant curved staircases at one end of the lobby.
"I think Grace Kelly may sweep down at any moment," she says.
But it's not Grace Kelly here today. Instead, more than 650 formerly homeless and low-income tenants live in the building, complete with services such as job counseling.
So, mission accomplished? Not exactly. After their Times Square Building was up and running for a few years, Haggerty and her staff started to notice something: There were still a lot of homeless people outside.
"You kind of expected, or at least I did, naively, this shift to happen. That building opens — homelessness, you don't see it anymore. The neighborhood just fixed it," Haggerty says. "And so it was this great puzzle. Like, what didn't we do?"
What they didn't do, it turns out, was talk to people living on the streets to find out what they wanted. Almost everyone living in the building had come here by way of the city's homeless shelters. As for those still outside?
"We had no clue," Haggerty says. "None of us in the field had any clue. We had just written people off because we thought their failure to use the shelter system meant they didn't want help, they didn't want the shelter."
Haggerty realized she needed to know two key things: who was living on the streets and what it would take to get them inside.
The Vulnerability Index
And that's the next step in social innovation — fixing what doesn't work.
"Somehow it occurred to me: Maybe I need someone with a military background," Haggerty recalls. So she hired Becky Kanis, a West Point graduate and former special ops commander with the Army.
"I didn't know anything about homelessness," Kanis says. But she did know how to get things done.
Kanis took a team of outreach workers into the streets and started interviewing homeless people and creating detailed profiles. They then ranked each individual on a scale from 0 to 8, using something called a vulnerability index — simply put, the higher the number, the more likely the person would die on the streets if he or she didn't get help.
"We start off our relationship with people really just getting to the bottom line," Kanis says. "How long have you been here? How sick are you? Do you want housing? Most people do. Let's work it out together. And the outreach teams in New York house in that order. They house in order of length of homelessness and vulnerability."
She says it's a big shift from the old way of doing things, which was to help the homeless first come, first served. The idea is to focus resources on those who need the most help, even if they don't come seeking it.
Samuel Novacich, a housing advocate with Common Ground, shows how the system works. He and a colleague drive a van around lower Manhattan looking for a homeless client who is moving up the vulnerability list.
"The one we're going to look for now has been out for a number of years, and he also suffers from schizophrenia and alcohol dependence," Novacich says. They're stepping up efforts to get him inside.
The case workers pull up to a sidewalk on Avenue D, where they see a pile of blankets. They suspect the man is sleeping there. When Novacich gets out and gently pokes the mound, a man with long, stringy hair and fingernails caked with dirt emerges. He takes a sip from a half-pint of vodka as Novacich tries to cajole him into getting help.
"Let's make a plan," Novacich tells the man, who gives his name as Ravi. "Let's make a plan for early next week. Monday? We'll come by, put you in the hospital, do like a nice stay, and you'll come out good as new. Think about it over the weekend maybe."
Ravi is reluctant. He says he doesn't like hospitals, especially the food.
A National Campaign
It can take months, even years to get someone inside. But Common Ground says it's worth it — it costs less to house and treat a man like Ravi than to leave him on the street, where he'll use emergency services again and again.
They say taking care of the most serious cases also has a ripple effect. Many of the less serious cases will take care of themselves. And there have been some encouraging results. When Becky Kanis started at Common Ground, there were 55 chronically homeless people living in the Times Square area. Now there are none, according to Haggerty.
Haggerty started getting a lot of attention for her work — even a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. More recently, she says, other cities across the country started calling. They were interested in trying the same thing in their communities.
So Common Ground launched its national campaign to house 100,000 chronically homeless people over the next three years. More than 70 cities have already signed up — places like Phoenix, Nashville, Tucson, Seattle and San Diego. They've each conducted their own homeless surveys and collectively have found permanent housing for more than 7,500 people.
Kanis says the cities are also sharing tips, such as how to cut through government red tape, to improve what Common Ground began.
"They call us and say, 'We just changed this rule,' and we're like, 'Oh, that's fantastic,' and we tell everybody else. And that's just how the campaign grew, very organically," Kanis says.
Not everyone is sold on the idea, and there are some people who doubt it will make a big dent in the homeless population. Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless, another group in New York City, says Common Ground has done a lot of good for the long-term homeless.
"But we shouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that the large majority of homeless people are not this chronically homeless population," he says. "We're talking about families. We're talking about children. We're talking about folks that have been impacted by the economic crisis."
Markee says if you want to end homelessness, you have to address their problems, too — such as the lack of affordable housing.
Haggerty and Kanis insist that they're on the right track, but they know the proof will be in the results of their three-year campaign.