There are some social problems that, unfortunate as they are, just need to be accepted. They will always exist to one degree or another. One of those problems most people have resigned themselves to is homelessness. Rosanne Haggerty is not most people.
"We really misunderstood this issue," says Ms. Haggerty, the chief executive of Community Solutions, a New York nonprofit that helps communities use data and design to rethink complex problems affecting their most vulnerable residents. The group’s 100,000 Homes Campaign worked with 186 communities across the country to house more than 100,000 chronically homeless people in just four years.
In this edition of the Business of Giving, Ms. Haggerty talks about challenging longstanding assumptions about homelessness and connecting the dots — governmental, economic, medical — that contribute to it. And she tells how her organization is helping bring together the relevant actors to create solutions that go beyond building shelters and make it easier for people to get themselves off the street permanently.
Listen to the full interview below, and/or scroll down to read a transcript provided by the Business of Giving. Also listen to an interview with Robert Egger, founder and chief executive of L.A. Kitchen.
Denver: There are some social problems that, as unfortunate as they may be, just need to be accepted. They will always exist to one degree or another. And one of those problems most people have resigned themselves to is homelessness. No matter what we do, it will never be eliminated entirely. But my next guest is not most people. She is Rosanne Haggerty, the President and CEO of Community Solutions. Good evening, Rosanne, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Rosanne: Thank you for having me here.
Denver: You have said that the world is full of complex social problems for which no reliable, cost-effective solutions have been found. Homelessness, however, is not one of them. Explain to us what you mean.
Rosanne: All over the country, we’re seeing communities make profound strides in reducing and ending homelessness for good, among people who are chronically homeless–meaning they’ve been homeless for long periods of time– and homeless veterans. We really misunderstood this issue. There is much to be excited about… in terms of what can be accomplished when cities organize their resources properly. That’s the big “Ah Ha!”
Denver: Tells us about Community Solutions. This is now the second organization that you have founded, albeit, related to the first one– which was Common Ground. What is the philosophy of Community Solutions? What are the goals and objectives of your organization?
Rosanne: We help communities solve the complex problems that affect their most vulnerable residents. And we do that by bringing tools from other sectors that have been effective in solving complex problems–from design thinking, quality improvement, data analytics. So, that’s our mission. We have redefined homelessness as a symptom of the larger problem–the breakdown of community systems.
Denver: You started this work back in the early 1980s, and you were exceptionally idealistic back then. You were really hopeful that homelessness was a solvable problem. But what you witnessed was quite disheartening… and gave you a little less of an optimistic outlook. What did you see back then?
Rosanne: When I first moved to New York, homelessness was a newly-defined issue at the time,in the early 80s. I worked by day at a shelter for homeless and runaway young people, and overnight, once a week, volunteering at a church basement shelter for homeless women. And I think in my naïvete, I was of the belief: “We’ll be enough volunteers and shelters–we can nail this!”
Denver: We can lick this thing!
Rosanne: “It’s a new issue; it’s kind of happened on our watch.” And within a couple of months, in both places, I was just appreciating this huge disconnect. I think I had imagined that there was some larger plan, that if we got enough volunteers to staff the shelters, this was all going to work out. But at the Shelter for Runaway and Homeless Youth, the young people could stay for a maximum of 30 days. And I quickly saw the young people I was responsible for–their problems were not 30-day problems. They were permanent problems around housing, jobs, families that had fallen apart… The real complexity was not homelessness, but poverty… that had driven them into homelessness. And yet, we would discharge them after 30 days. No surprise! Most of them would be back 30 days later.
After a few months, I thought, “What exactly are we accomplishing here? This is certainly not something that’s solution-oriented.” And meanwhile, I’m working as a volunteer overnight with women who would be bused to the church basement shelter…They had been lining up for hours and travelling all over the city before being dropped off…They would just sort of stumble in, exhausted. I was able to sit down and speak with a few of them over tea. And it was clear that none of them had any idea how they were going to get out of homelessness. And no one was talking to them about how that could happen. What they knew and had been instructed on was: when and and where to catch the bus to get to that overnight shelter. And so there I was, as a 21-22-year-old, thinking: ”Wait a minute! Nobody’s in charge here! There are a lot of well-intentioned emergency efforts, a lot of people like me who are trying to pitch in, but this is not going anywhere.”
Denver: Well, I think you also witnessed that the resources were available and, just as you said, people had deeply heartfelt intentions. But, the system itself… was broken. How was the system broken?
Rosanne: I’ll start from the vantage point of 2016. Sometimes it takes a while to understand and really see what’s going on. The dots weren’t being connected. There were people who could not solve their housing needs in the marketplace–who needed something other than just affordable housing in many cases–in order to resolve the overriding problem that was making them vulnerable to homelessness.
For instance, in the early 80s, we saw a very significant increase in individuals with mental health difficulties on the street. It was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. There was the early fallout of the country’s lack of investment in expanding the supply of affordable housing. We were beginning to see the impact of really stagnant wage growth. All of these forces were converging. Yet, we were opening shelters and thinking that was the answer.
Fast forward to 2016: what we’ve realized is needed–not just in homelessness, but in many of these really tough issues that are facing our most vulnerable citizens–is to connect the dots on: Homelessness. Health. Housing. Mental health. Substance abuse. Wage issues. And rather than being overwhelmed by that, we’ve learned you have to gather all the people involved in those issues at the table, and make it simpler for vulnerable people to get what they need. It’s the job of not-for-profits and government to simplify the process of getting people the tools for a basic standard of living.
Denver: As you said, the social welfare system was actually hindering the process of getting somebody who was living on the street into some kind of stable housing. The rules and the regulations were so complex, it required an Einstein to navigate the bureaucracy.
Rosanne: Yes, we saw the problem after a while, and it was us! There was no way– literally no way–we discovered when we started focusing on street homelessness, that people living on the street could actually get themselves into any kind of publicly-assisted housing. They were ineligible for it. So, people ask, “Why do we have homelessness?” Well, we need to look at, “What are the rules we’ve created? What are the barriers that we’ve created in the way of getting this problem solved?” And the tragedy is that good people have unwittingly conspired to create institutions and systems that don’t connect, and are not really grounded in: “How do we help people get what they need as quickly as possible?” So, we’ve ended up in a much more tangled state… that actually blocks progress.
Denver: And although it’s pretty fashionable to disparage the healthcare system, you noted that in working on the issue of homelessness, something could be learned from the healthcare sector. What are some of the strategies and procedures that would be helpful, if adopted?
Rosanne: Our healthcare system–with all its need for improvement–understands that you need to know people by name. You need an individual diagnosis; you need to triage the most urgent cases. It’s never the case that everyone has the same thing, and everyone needs the same level of urgent attention. You understand within the system that generalists and specialists need to communicate with each other. At least those habits are ones, that if we applied them to housing needs, I think we would be in a different place.
And in fact, that’s what we’re seeing in our Zero Campaign: in getting the right configuration of information…person-specific information, in understanding different levels of need and facilitating around person-specific data, that problem solving conversations start to happen with a team able to help communities make progress.
Denver: That’s a very interesting observation, because I think many look at homelessness as a generic problem. We’ve got to “fix” homelessness. We think about that static waiting list you put people on. That’s not the way the healthcare system works, and that’s not the way this system should be working either.
Rosanne: Precisely! I mean, we’d all think it was absurd if anyone who showed up at the emergency room was either given aspirin, or scheduled for brain surgery. But that’s kind of the way we’ve handled things in homelessness.
Denver: You’ve talked about trying to connect the dots, and getting all the players aligned. We have the VA; we have the nonprofits; we have governments; we have the housing authorities. I think a lot of people recognize what’s out there, and we have to have everybody working in unison. But it’s a whole different story to actually get people to do that. They come from different bureaucracies. They have different theories of change. There are egos involved. Share with us the secret sauce of getting this done. How do you change the ingrained habits of how organizations work?
Rosanne: We have found that in just about every community, there are leaders that have never lost the original vision and drive to solve this problem. And it’s always critical to connect with the leader or leaders who can bring a community team together. It minimally has to consist of the Mayor’s office– or whoever controls the health and mental health resources in the community–, the housing authority, the not-for-profits, and the VA.
If you can, get that group at the table to see the problem the same way– which is really about person-specific data. Who exactly is homeless in our community? Who is at elevated risk for prolonged homelessness, or for dying on the street, given the health risks that attend long-term homelessness? And once communities have a starting point– which is real-time person-specific data– they can begin to understand and measure how long it takes that community to pull all of its resources together to get a single individual or a family into a stable home. Then, you’re beginning to move past ideology and all of the methodologies that have surrounded homelessness too.
Actually, we have a pretty clear-cut job to do. “We have this number of individuals who are not going to find their way out of homelessness on their own. How do we pull our resources across these different systems? How do we know we’re doing the job well and getting better at it?”
And so much of this is coaching communities around how they overcome some of the communication and data-sharing barriers. How they actually align their resources… so if someone has the mental health contract… that they’re partnered with someone who is actually overseeing the rent subsidies. How the VA gets involved in working with community systems they often had not worked with before… until the homelessness issue became a priority for the VA. So, it’s really this discipline around putting the pieces together.
And I’d say that maybe the image to think about is: if a community is dealing with a public health threat, i.e. polio, ebola–you would do basically the same thing. Or, there’s a surging hurricane: Who are the most vulnerable? Where are they? What do we need to do? How long is it taking us to do it? Has the situation been resolved? It’s bringing the type of rigor and collaboration we see in disasters into something that’s, frankly, been a slow-moving disaster.
Denver: Yes. Before I get to a couple of your signature programs, Rosanne, I just want to ask you a few questions about some of the general beliefs that people have about homelessness. One of them would be that some people are simply service-resistant: “This is a deliberate lifestyle decision of theirs… They want to live on the street… or they can’t be helped.” Is this true or false?
Rosanne: Well, I had to learn that was not only false, but tragically so. For years, when I was focused on building housing for the homeless, I would walk past individuals in Times Square, Midtown Manhattan and see these poor souls. Not infrequently, I’d call the outreach team saying, “I just saw someone, and we know who she is.” Or “We know who he is; he’s service resistant.” And so, I guess my guilt was sort of discharged… that I’ve made the call. But then one day, one of the service-resistant people–actually, a hospital social worker, called me and said that she wanted to be housed at one of our buildings. In speaking with this woman who’d been homeless over 11 years, she said, “I always wanted help, but with housing! The only thing I was ever offered was a ride to a shelter, blankets and food.” And it was like…
Denver: A light bulb went off.
Rosanne: Total light bulb going off moment! “What if we have just been out there offering what we happened to have…what we think people need? Rather than asking them: “What help do you need to get out of homelessness?” And so, we basically started questioning every assumption we had about: What are the familiar mythologies that surround homelessness? Guess what? Almost every one of them was wrong!
Denver: Incredible. Another myth is that homelessness is a big city problem.
Rosanne: Yes.. Hardly the case. I mean, certainly when you look at the map of homelessness in the United States, homelessness is everywhere. It’s, of course, concentrated in large cities, but no city, no rural area, no county escapes it.
Denver: Another belief I think people have is: We can’t really afford to get these people off the street and put them into housing. The question becomes, “What’s the cost differential between providing housing and providing the services that people need when they’re living on the street?”
Rosanne: Well, the crazy and the hopeful thing is that in cost studies and communities all over the country, it’s been verified time and again: they were spending more money to keep people homeless, than would be required to actually help support them in getting into a stable home… and getting them connected to the health, mental health services or the employment assistance they need.
Denver: Wow, that’s remarkable.
Rosanne: I mean, the numbers are staggering. It’s not even marginal. I think now New York City spends over $40,000 per year to keep a family in shelter. The most robust rent subsidy would result in a fraction of that cost.
Denver: About six years ago, you launched the 100,000 Homes Campaign– in partnership with 186 communities across the country. Tell us how it worked, Rosanne, and what you were able to achieve.
Rosanne: Well, important to know that when we launched it, I think we had maybe 30 communities– mainly our friends– who said, “Okay, we’re with you. This sounds crazy, but it’s the right thing to do.” And it was basically out of this insight: “What if we are looking at the issue wrong? It’s not about all the things we say it is…like we don’t have enough affordable housing; we don’t have enough of this; we don’t have enough of that; people aren’t cooperating. What if the people working on the problem–the not-for-profits and governments– what if it’s about our behavior, and how easy or hard we make it for people to get off the street?”
So, what we did was issue an invitation to communities around the country to join in the effort of figuring out how to work better and smarter– toward a collective target of 100,000 chronic and vulnerable people to be housed in four years. We had tested this. We began with a project in Times Square, got to some proof points where we thought: Here are the key ingredients… And then we worked first with nine, then with up to 30 communities who joined in.
We knew we had some basic ideas that worked everywhere. What was powerful though is that each community that joined improved our original idea. By the end, there were 186 communities involved. It was essentially a giant behavior change in process improvement initiative. And as I’ve mentioned earlier…getting the right players in that community together, using data to actually tell what is going on… “Do we have our arms around this problem; do we actually know who’s homeless, or are we guessing? Do we know how our systems are performing?”
In many ways, when we went to different communities, it was an occasion for groups that had never worked together before to combine resources and intelligence to let the community solve the problem. We were thrilled to see our original assumptions about behavior change, alignment of resources, the discipline of sharing and working at the community level–not as different institutions, but as a team–play out. Those 186 communities together housed more than 105,000 people.
Rosanne: Hats off to the communities, because the hard work happened there. Our team provided the coaching and the data infrastructure, and provided a new community of problem solvers to belong to.
Denver: That’s great. And this is an extension of the “Housing First” concept, would that be correct?
Rosanne: Very much so! And that was a key idea– that housing, without condition, is the first step in enabling a chronically homeless person– or a person with medical vulnerabilities– to actually get on the other side. From a stable place to live…then the mental health and addiction services, and everything else that person might need. First of all, you can find them to offer them services, and then they can be provided consistently. It provides a very proven win for the individual, and a huge win for communities.
Denver: And you just said a moment ago… that it was less expensive for taxpayers to support someone in housing than it would be to care for them on the street. So, what would the cost savings be–for these 105,000 people that you were able to move into housing?
Rosanne: Well, we hired an outside evaluator to look at the cost impact of the first 100,000. The conclusion was that it represented a $1.3 Billion–that’s with a “B”–annual… So that’s a recurring savings…mainly in cost avoidance in the healthcare system, but also in cities that have large shelter systems, and also in the criminal justice system, and in the VA.
Denver: Fantastic! Soon after the 100,000 Homes Campaign was completed, you didn’t sit around too long. You launched something called the Zero 2016 Campaign, and now you’re working with 70 communities. Tell us about the goals and objectives of that initiative.
Rosanne: What we realized with the 100,000 Homes Campaign was that the drive to change the way communities understood and worked on the problem was a powerful and proven insight. But the ultimate objective is not simply to count up and get more people housed, but: How to help communities get to a point where they actually don’t have people in long-term homelessness? How to have a system that can prevent and end individual and family homelessness?
And so, the Zero Campaign is even more audacious. “Who’s in, as far as building a system that can sustainably end chronic and veteran homelessness…and create the local infrastructure that can work all the way down to prevent and end people’s homelessness of every stripe?” But the target for these cities is getting to a sustainable level of chronic and veteran homelessness, and I think six of the cities are already there. And we’re going to have to continue the Zero Campaign past 2016. But these 70 communities are all in, and it’s a powerful thing. It includes four states and huge areas like Los Angeles County. I think it’s an enormous tribute to these local leaders, who are basically putting aside their old programs, their old assumptions, and saying: “What do we have to do to be communities that end this problem?”
Denver: And aside from leading and orchestrating some of these national campaigns, you also get pretty deeply involved in some communities. One of them is Brownsville, Brooklyn, where employment and safety are among the major concerns. Tell us about your Brownsville partnership.
Rosanne: Well a few years ago, as we were getting ready to launch Community Solutions, we were asking ourselves system level questions about what if we work differently and changed outcomes for vulnerable people by making it easier for people to get what they needed. We also asked the question about what causes homelessness. What does the pathway into homelessness look like? The data we have been able to gather–both in New York and Hartford where we worked deeply, but also in communities around the country–point to the neighborhoods of concentrated poverty in our country… where people have struggled the longest, where lives have gone off track early, and where there is huge government investment…
But, sadly, it was not in ways that create opportunity and improve the standard of living for people. It was reactive. And so Brownsville represents one of two efforts to basically get the right people around the same table: residents, government, not-for- profits, businesses, to start looking at how we change the conditions that trap people in poverty.
When we began our work organizing and listening to the community, we heard three things over and over again. 1) For this neighborhood to change, and for people to have different lives, we need to do something around crime. But mainly, we have to deal with the impact of the criminal justice system… so many people involved in incarceration and its effects. 2) We need something for children– to get them on different pathways. 3) And, we need jobs.
And so, we have recruited amazing partner organizations with expertise in those areas. As with our homelessness work, we think it’s the same problem: How do we connect the dots? How do we reduce friction? How do we make it easier for the intentions of our society to create real opportunity? How to manifest it in the outcomes of these programs for low-income people?
Denver: And probably, Rosanne, the best partners you have been able to engage have been the residents of the community. You have something called the Brownsville Hope Summit. Tell us about that.
Rosanne: Well, the 4th Annual Hope Summit is coming up on September 10th, and we move it around each year to basically have a day…
Denver: October last year, right?
Rosanne: It was, and this year the theme is “Live on Livonia.” So we picked some part of the community that’s struggling, has some geographic location. We invite all of the institutional partners, government and residents to come out. We ask: How do we pool our ideas and resources to get something done here?
Denver: I like the way you reframe problems, and that’s always a great way to get some new insights. So, instead of looking at homelessness as a chronic and intractable problem that’s experienced by maybe 1.5 million Americans every year, you began to look at it through the lens: “Hey, over 99% of us have homes!” How did this different prism around the issue change your and other people’s thinking?
Rosanne: Well, we are big believers at Community Solutions in looking at what works. I think maybe we’re just congenital optimists, or people who are very hopeful. But that notion, I think, dates from a couple of seminal experiences early on in our work. I remember when we were operating our big support of housing buildings…my colleagues and I would be tearing our hair out over the couple of tenants:- “Oh! Their struggles!” You’d convince yourself… because you’re always talking about the same problems…that this is impossible. What we learned is: “Hey wait, we’re talking about three people! We have thousands of people who are doing well! Let’s keep some perspective here!”
And then when we started focusing on street homelessness, we realized that while there were dozens and dozens of people we would identify by name on the street, there was only a group of 18 who were homeless every day in Times Square. And when we focused on getting individuals housed, that represented the real core of the problem. And so it caused us to think that life really is organized not around the 80-20 rule, but more like the 95-5 rule. And so, if you can figure out where the problem is most acute, and learn your way… with the participation of the people suffering the problem…into what are some practical things that can move the needle… We have never not seen progress!
Denver: In all that you’ve talked about, you stated three critical things that are necessary to end homelessness. I’m going to ask you to speak to each of them. The first you have already touched upon: Know people by name.
Rosanne: In some ways, it’s the most revolutionary finding of all… that communities that are really getting to sustainable zero on chronic and veteran homelessness.. it’s completely correlated with a by-name list. Do they know each individual who is struggling in homelessness by name, with enough information to help triage them into housing, and get them what they need? Some people will need a lifetime of support; others need help with the first month’s rent.
And if you begin to actually know people by name, it doesn’t only open up the door to solutions, it frankly engages a community in problem solving in powerful ways. Think of the difference between: “We have an estimated x numbers of homeless individuals,” and knowing: “That is the specific individual… John… who has a specific history.” We have seen in communities around the country, people coming out of the woodwork to help, because they know the specifics of that person’s life and that person’s need. So it’s sort of definitive baseline; this is how to solve problems in a complex world.
Denver: And those names change every day, right?
Rosanne: They change everyday. And so, that’s why the real-time nature of the information is so critical to communities.
Denver: The second critical thing, different from how the sector operates, is “to learn by doing.”
Rosanne: Any problem–not just homelessness–but anything that is daunting, really requires a testing and learning. And somehow, we got to a point where… whether it’s a government contract, or a proposal to a foundation, you have to suggest in this big complex, unknown thing, that you already have the answer!
Denver: That’s exactly right.
Rosanne: That’s just not the way the world works. A very wise friend of mine highlights the difference between risk and uncertainty. If you’ve done something before, you can calculate the risk … “Were the conditions right? Do we have enough money? Do we have the right team?” But if something hasn’t been figured out, you’re in a different universe, and you need to create the conditions of support learning, the development of probabilities. It’s going to require a long time to stick with the learning. And this, from the philanthropic and government standpoint, is a challenge I’d like to put out there: Be at the table and the learning; don’t expect that these problems are going to yield to a silver bullet.
Denver: I can’t tell you the number of people I know who have contracts with governments or foundations, and in the midst of them, they’ve learned that it’s not working. But they have to continue because they have an agreement. They have to fulfill it, despite the fact that they know it’s not the way to go any more.
Rosanne: Yeah. It’s like we have all the time in the world to keep going down the wrong path. I think with our team, we have an amazing group that says: “Hey, we’ve got a higher duty to try to get on with things, and do more of the right thing.”
Denver: You’re absolutely right. And the final one: Make success visible to inspire others.
Rosanne: I think, as humans, we don’t believe that something beyond our ideas is possible unless we’ve seen it, touched it, visited it. And so what we’ve learned is how important it is for people who are skeptics, or who just are genuinely unaware of what to do: Share stories; share important graphic information; have them visit your building; have them see that it’s possible to create good, affordable housing that works for formerly homeless people.
And very powerfully, we’ve learned the impact of video… this notion of sharing stories. Information’s critical, and I keep mentioning data. But without the stories, you really don’t grip people with the sense of the possible. And so it’s become, I think, one of our key learnings that communication is an add-on. Communication is core to the mission.
Denver: I’ve been to your website, and I’ve seen some of the before- and-after pictures of individuals that you’ve helped, and they have been amazing. Speaking of your website, if people want to learn more about Community Solutions; if they want to get engaged in some way, or perhaps become a financial supporter, what would you have them do?
Rosanne: Please do come to our website which is cmtysolutions.org.
Denver: Well, Rosanne Haggerty, the President and CEO of Community Solutions. I want to thank you for being on the program this evening. We human beings have a wonderful way of making things quite complicated. It comes as quite a surprise that when all is said and done, the best way to end homelessness is simply to provide homes for people who do not have them! It was a real pleasure, Rosanne, to have you on the show.
Rosanne: Thank you so much.