Ending Homelessness: A Model That Might Work More than 30 years ago, Rosanne Haggerty founded a group called Common Ground, which turned a hotel on the verge of being condemned in New York City's Times Square into permanent housing for the homeless. Common Ground's program has become a national model for helping the chronically homeless.
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Ending Homelessness: A Model That Just Might Work

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Ending Homelessness: A Model That Just Might Work

Ending Homelessness: A Model That Just Might Work

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

As NPR's Pam Fessler reports, Haggerty's group, Common Ground, has a plan to find permanent housing for 100,000 chronically homeless people.

PAM FESSLER: This is a story about the evolution of an idea and how it turned into a national campaign. Rosanne Haggerty stands outside an elegant 15-story brick building in Midtown Manhattan and recalls how it began, how this former hotel became a model for housing the homeless.

ROSANNE HAGGERTY: In the early '80s, I lived right next door to the Times Square Hotel. It was back in the day when Times Square was Times Square, as we say, but kind of a crazy neighborhood, to say the least.

FESSLER: Known for peep shows and prostitutes before anyone dreamed that Times Square would become a family destination. Haggerty, who worked with the homeless, was upset to find out the old hotel was shutting down.

HAGGERTY: It was the largest single-room-occupancy hotel in New York City. The building was practically on the verge of being condemned. It had 1,700 serious building code violations.

FESSLER: And trash, mildew and crack vials everywhere. But Haggerty was young, 29, and she thought: Hey, why not just fix the building up so all these homeless people have somewhere to live and, while we're at it, provide services like health care and job training?

HAGGERTY: I thought that that could be a solution for the Times Square.

FESSLER: So that's exactly what she did with some help from the city and the feds.

FESSLER: Today, you'd have a hard time telling the Times Square from a pricy Manhattan condo: marble lobby, gold-trimmed ceilings, art deco light fixtures. Haggerty points to two elegant, curved staircases.

HAGGERTY: I think Grace Kelly may sweep down at any moment. It's beautiful.

FESSLER: After the Times Square was up and running for a few years, Haggerty and her staff started to notice something: There were still lots of homeless people outside.

HAGGERTY: 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. And so it was this great puzzle. Like, what didn't we do?

FESSLER: What they didn't do, it turns out, was to actually talk to people living on the streets to find out what they wanted. Almost everyone at The Times Square had come there by way of the city's homeless shelters; as for those still outside?

HAGGERTY: We had no clue. 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.

FESSLER: Haggerty realized she needed to know two key things: who was out there and what it would take to get them in. So now we come to the next step in social innovation: fixing what doesn't work.

HAGGERTY: Somehow it occurred to me, like, maybe I need someone with a military background.

BECKY KANIS: I don't know why she had it in her mind that she wanted someone with a military background.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FESSLER: But she did. So Haggerty hired Becky Kanis, a West Point graduate and former special ops commander.

KANIS: And I didn't know anything about homelessness.

FESSLER: Then they ranked them on a scale from zero to eight, using something called a vulnerability index. Simply put, the higher your number, the more likely you'll die on the street if you don't get help.

KANIS: We start off our relationship with people really just getting to the bottom line. How long 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.

FESSLER: A big shift from the old way of doing things, which was helping the homeless first come, first served.

SAMUEL NOVACICH: I don't see anybody there right now.

FESSLER: Samuel Novacich is a housing advocate with Common Ground. He and a colleague are driving a van around Lower Manhattan, looking for a homeless client who's moving up the vulnerability list.

NOVACICH: 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.

FESSLER: Unidentified Woman: So here's bedding, so this might be him.

FESSLER: The caseworkers pull up to a sidewalk on Avenue D where they see a pile of blankets. Novacich gets out and gently pokes the mound. A man with long, stringy hair and fingernails caked with dirt slowly emerges. He takes a sip from a half-pint of vodka as Novacich tries to cajole him into getting help.

NOVACICH: So let's make a plan. Let's make a plan for early next week, Monday. We'll come by, put you in the hospital. Do like a nice stay?

FESSLER: When Becky Kanis started, there were 55 chronically homeless people living in the Times Square area. Now there are none. Haggerty started getting a lot of attention for results like these, even a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. And more recently, she says...

HAGGERTY: Other cities around the country started contacting us.

FESSLER: Which brings us to the next step for an innovative idea: If it works one place, will it work somewhere else?

HAGGERTY: Are there any people who work for local government on the phone?

TINA: This is Tina in Baton Rouge, and I work for the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency.

GREGORY: And this is Gregory. I work for the city of Fresno.

SOPHIE: And Sophie from the city of Santa Barbara housing authority.

FESSLER: They've already permanently housed more than 7,500 people. Kanis says everyone is also sharing tips to improve what Common Ground began, like how to cut through government red tape.

KANIS: They call us and say: We just changed this rule. And we're like: Oh, that's fantastic. And we tell everybody else. That's just really how the campaign grew, very organically.

FESSLER: Although not everyone's sold on the idea. Patrick Markee is with Coalition for the Homeless, also in New York. He says Common Ground has done a lot of good for the long-term homeless.

PATRICK MARKEE: But we shouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that, you know, the large majority of homeless people are not this chronically homeless population. We're talking about families. We're talking about children. We're talking about folks that have been impacted by the economic crisis.

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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