Roseanne Haggerty, MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award
Maybe it was inevitable, it certainly is understandable, not to mention admirable, that Rosanne Haggerty, a 2001 MacArthur Foundation fellow, would take up the cause of the homeless. The oldest of eight children, whose father died when she was in her teens but whose mother was “utterly resilient,” Haggerty remembers how, during holidays, those who had nowhere to go would be invited to share meals at her family’s Hartford, Conn., home.
Still, it took a while for the challenge of helping the homeless to take root. An American Studies major at Amherst, Haggerty recalls how it was only in her senior year, as she was working on a thesis about urban affairs, poverty and social justice, that it dawned on her — a “mind-boggling moment” — that she needed to know more about the world. A prompt in this regard was reading the work of writer, social activist and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. And so she volunteered for a one-year program at Covenant House in Manhattan and wound up counseling young boys who lived in the shelter. They were really not runaways who she began to see but homeless kids, though some had run away from abusive families or group homes. More significantly, she saw that their three-week stay at the shelter was typically followed by subsequent stays. She became additionally involved with policy development, particularly as this affected youngsters. And she began to see that Covenant House, busy enough trying to provide shelter, could not also efficiently address solving problems — trying to prevent homelessness, recidivism and costly, impractical initiatives.
The MacArthur no-strings genius award came “from out of left field,” she says, though obviously someone out there had been watching her incremental movements to devise a stable-housing plan for the homeless by renovating defunct old buildings. Before that, she had worked for seven years at Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens and after that at Common Ground, an organization she founded that would address issues related to homelessness. When she had been at Covenant House, which was located in Times Square, she could not help seeing what was going on next door at the bankrupt Times Square Hotel, a residence for the homeless that had so far acquired 1,700 violations and was a disaster in the way it treated the homeless, the elderly and the mentally ill.
Common Ground started to buy, build and remake buildings. With funding from government sources but increasingly the private sector, Haggerty began to think of how providing low-income housing could be joined to other needs — in health, education and broader social services, including jobs training and actual jobs — and how all these resources might be integrated and also serve as a model nation wide. Today, from over a modest start in New York City, over 70 cities participate in a national Common Ground campaign, with special emphasis on cities such as New Orleans that also symbolize the plight of the most vulnerable.
“I’m in the systems integration business now,” Haggerty says, though the New York City program continues, with a special focus on Brownsville. Central to all efforts, she emphasizes, is education, including classes in ESL and financial literacy, and so she has partnered with public and charter schools, and with community colleges for a “from-cradle-to-career” campaign working on preventing homelessness. Both the New York City Common Ground and the national chapter are aimed at eliminating working at cross purposes.
As for assessment, Haggerty notes that data tracking in one pilot area has turned up a 94 percent housing-stability rate after one year, and has dramatically reduced unnecessary hospitalization, thus reducing costs. Related studies are under way to evaluate how kids in families that are now being kept together do in school. Outreach efforts in Brownsville have also shown that the most vulnerable youngsters, many of whom have mothers who have been or are on welfare, should be identified as special-needs children.
“There are so many terrible things that are beyond our control. This [homelessness] isn’t…I believe that this is urgent work.” That statement, articulated almost a decade ago, is, she believes, slowly being realized. #