The elegant Beaux-arts lobby, with its high ceiling and oak paneled walls, held only a few people early that morning: three 60-ish men seated before the big windows overlooking East 28th Street in Lower Manhattan. It might have been a fashionable club. But the men were not elegantly dressed, and they were speaking among themselves not in English, but in Spanish—hardly the language of New York City’s more upscale inhabitants. Seated nearby, I could not help but think how out of place they would have seemed in the Prince George Hotel when it first opened in the early 1900’s, replete with ballroom—not just because of their clothing (neat but shabby) and language, but also because I knew they had recently been living on the city’s streets. So had two African-American residents who were on their way out, past the security guard who exchanged a friendly “How’s it goin’?” with them. After being homeless, they now live in deftly renovated efficiency units on the building’s upper floors.
I was waiting to speak with Rosanne Haggerty, the executive director and founder of the Common Ground Community, the remarkable nonprofit organization that has arranged permanent housing for over 1,000 formerly homeless men and women. While many of them live at the Prince George, still more live at three other sites that are part of Common Ground’s efforts to deal with the problem of homelessness. A week earlier I had visited them on foot, in something of a marathon walking venture that ended on the Bowery, a street whose name at one time stood for everything homelessness epitomizes in the phrase “down and out,” because of its many so-called flophouses. Most of these lodging houses have succumbed to the pressures of gentrification, but Common Ground managed to raise the funds to buy one and to rent space in another. Both represent transitional housing efforts aimed at stabilizing the lives of formerly homeless people with troubled backgrounds, including mental health issues, addictions or prior involvement with the criminal justice system.
In her top-floor office, Rosanne spoke of her conviction that homelessness is a solvable problem, and that boldness is the least risky strategy in addressing it. Such boldness showed in her early idea that the Prince George and its companion hotel, the Times Square, could serve as home not only for homeless men and women, but also for low-income working people—in what she described as mixed tenancy. This successful mixing of seemingly disparate groups originated in what Rosanne called a light-bulb moment in the early 1990’s. After finishing college, she had spent a year as a volunteer at Covenant House, and from there she moved on to the Catholic Charities office in Brooklyn, where she focused full time on housing issues. There, she said, she became aware that housing struggles affected not just those who are literally homeless, but also low-income workers who could not find affordable housing. So years later, while she was working on an advanced degree at Columbia University, the mixed-tenancy light bulb moment struck.
At the time, both the Times Square Hotel and the Prince George had sunk into decay and were providing substandard shelter for families on welfare. The first of the two hotels acquired by Common Ground—the Times Square in mid-Manhattan—was in the news in 1990 because of bankruptcy proceedings. This circumstance led Rosanne to think of how it might effectively be used at a time when, as she put it, “I was asking questions about my life and what I should be doing with it.” She added, “I didn’t know then that I was setting out to create a new organization until it actually happened.” But with the potential of the Times Square in mind, she contacted other advocacy organizations that worked with the homeless and also spoke with city officials, asking their thoughts on the possible use of the Times Square Hotel as a mixed-tenancy venture based on the concept of supportive housing. “Some of the people Ifirst spoke with thought I was wacko,” she said, “and greeted my idea with stunned silence—but at the same time they said, ‘Keep us posted if we can help.’” One of the owners of the hotel whom she visited, however, was sympathetic to the idea of supportive housing and persuaded his partners to consider the concept seriously. After a series of complicated negotiations with owners, city officials, community boards, local businesses and neighbors, the new organization came into being as the Common Ground Community, and the Times Square Hotel was purchased in its name.
Ongoing funding comes from a combination of city, state, federal and private sources. This year’s fundraising gala alone, held in February, raised over $700,000. Some funding sources are decidedly creative, like the arrangement with Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream company, which entered into a partnership with Common Ground. One Ben & Jerry’s is next door to the Times Square, and like several other of its stores, provides training for tenants of Common Ground housing and individuals from other advocacy organizations. Under the terms of the agreement, moreover, Ben & Jerry’s donated the franchises, with the income generated from them serving as support for Common Ground programs.
As for the residents of the Times Square who are employed at low-paying jobs, they pay as rent one-third of what they earn. Those who have some form of public assistance or Social Security, also pay a third of what they receive—an arrangement that makes the Times Square self-supporting. The same is true of the residents of the Prince George. With proven successes like these and other endeavors to show for its work, Common Ground’s goal of creating 1,000 new units by 2007 is likely to be achieved.
Does faith enter into the picture? “Yes, absolutely,” Ms. Haggerty replied, “because this work is a work of mercy—something that has become clearer to me over the past 14 years since we began.” As in the similarly named Common Ground Initiative of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, she added, “people want to see solutions, and in our organization, there’s an assumption that the solutions must be in the service of decency and justice.” In this case, the service of decency and justice concerns the area of housing, and reflects the scriptural exhortation to “bring the homeless poor into your house” (Is. 58:7).