To end homelessness, solve a bigger problem

Rosanne Haggerty’s obsession is homelessness. She’s been working on it since she graduated from college, and what was to be a short volunteer project at a youth shelter became a lifelong commitment to ending homelessness. 

From the outset she grasped that an endgame to homelessness required housing, not temporary shelters, as a starting point. She created the not for profit, Common Ground, to convert derelict buildings into vibrant mixed income communities for the homeless, artists, and low wage workers. She showed that a stable home linked to jobs and health and mental health supports ended homelessness for good. But as time went on, even though Common Ground built new properties, homelessness rates continued to rise. Despite their success, Haggerty realized that creating homes was not enough. The whole system needed to change.

The “spin-off” that resulted from Haggerty and her team’s reimagination of purpose is Community Solutions, a national non-profit that not only creates homes but also strengthens the communities around them. Its mission is helping communities solve the complex housing and health problems of vulnerable people. Their immediate goal is housing 100,000 of the most vulnerable homeless individuals and families in the country by this time next year. Their movement, the 100,000 Homes Campaign, has spread to over 200 communities who have housed over 65,000 individuals and families since 2010.

Haggerty says that having a target number to hit has been a huge catalyst. “Having a collective, measurable, time bound goal has been like a booster rocket,” she says. “Change is never easy, yet all of us act much more crisply, collaboratively and creatively in a crisis. We create an experience of urgency to liberate people from bureaucracy.”

The main obstacle to reaching an endgame on homelessness, Haggerty explains, is that no one organization or agency has complete visibility into the overall system. While most organizations have what they consider reasonable rules, they don’t often see that other organizations have their own, different rules. For a homeless person to comply with the rules of each agency whose cooperation is needed to secure an affordable home, effective health or mental healthcare, income benefits or a job - all the elements of a stable life - is a daunting, if not impossible, task.

In the end, the system as a whole defeats the purpose of delivering assistance to those who need it most and are least able to navigate a complex array of bureaucratic rules.

“Most people working in any kind of human service environment have all good intentions and fairly significant resources and accomplish far less than they could,” Haggerty says. “Most people don’t consider the entirety of a vulnerable person’s situation or collaborate regularly with other organizations that have complementary resources or skills. It’s a culture issue. Most people working in human services don’t learn habits of collaboration. You have a lot of well-intentioned, single-focused approaches, yet people’s lives are complex."

Community Solutions works to integrate the breadth of resources and skills that exist within communities so that “they add up to more than the sum of all the parts.” Housing the homeless has meant building collaborations across siloed organizations to realize a collective goal. 

Solving complex problems begins with listening, observing, and mapping the existing assets of a community. The initial step is to get everyone in the same place, to remove blame and put the onus on everyone to shift a little.

“A lot of stuff gets sorted out informally,” Haggerty says. “Some of this is not at all designed. Solutions tend to emerge organically if you get people in proximity to each other with clear goals, actionable data and regular communication.”

Convincing entire communities to change the way they approach homelessness is sometimes a matter of demonstrating the long-range cost effectiveness of creating housing versus hospital, shelter and jail costs incurred in attempting to manage homelessness. But Haggerty is discovering that civic pride has become a major “pull factor” in mobilizing communities.

That’s why Community Solutions also takes their systems approach to crafting a “real endgame” as Haggerty calls it: helping communities prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place. They also created and lead neighborhood networks in two of the communities with the highest rates of poverty and homelessness in the country. Even in these beleaguered neighborhoods, there are proud residents and organizations ready to work differently to turn around the communities they love. “In getting started, we look for those people who are the unofficial leaders individuals who know everyone, understand core problems, and find ways to help every day” says Haggerty. “The incredibly hopeful thing is that in every community we find these change agents. They have been there all along, waiting for a process that they can hook into."

As with any innovation, ending homelessness at the systems level demands high optimism and faith in all the players. “We start with a belief that everybody wants to be part of the solution,” Haggerty says. “We are completely open — everybody show up, you’re all invited. We are on the lookout for people who are change agents, leaders who want to get something done, early adopters ready to pull up their sleeves. But we don’t wait around for the laggards.”