Common Ground: Pioneers in Ending Homelessness
“After four months in a shelter, to have a home of your own and to have a key and a bathroom of my own, it was marvelous,” Antoinette said in an interview with Common Ground, reflecting on a path that took her from the streets of New York City to the shelter and comfort of her own apartment.
When she arrived in New York City in the mid 1990s, Antoinette was in search of a new life in anew city. Instead, she found herself without a job, without a home, and with nowhere to turn. For months, she moved from shelter to shelter, sleeping among strangers, wondering if she would ever find a way to turn things around.
Antoinette is not alone: More than 3 million people experience homelessness in the United States every single year, according to The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
One night at a women’s shelter, Antoinette learned about The Times Square and, for the first time in months, felt hopeful. The largest permanent supportive housing project in the nation, The Times Square is home to 652 low-income and formerly homeless individuals. The once dilapidated historic building was acquired by Common Ground in 1991 and redeveloped into a center that provides permanent affordable housing and a range of social services from mental and physical health care to substance abuse treatment, education and employment assistance.
Antoinette applied, and was accepted, into The Times Square.
While there, Antoinette was able to work to improve her typing, computer and clerical skills through job training classes. Today, Antoinette still lives at The Times Square, but she is more than a tenant; for twelve years now, Antoinette has been on staff at the property. As Leasing and Subsidy Administrator, Antoinette is able to blend her career training and empathy gained through her own personal experience with homelessness to help so many others who have found themselves in her shoes.
Antoinette is one of hundreds of success stories that Common Ground makes possible every single year. In fact, more than 4,000 individuals have overcome homelessness to date, thanks to this organization, which has been a pioneer for nearly 20 years in the development of supportive housing and other research-based practices that end homelessness while linking people with the services they need to maintain their housing, restore their health and regain their economic independence.
Common Ground focuses its efforts in New York City, where it is based, and also in Connecticut and upstate New York. The organization has created more than 2,000 units of permanent and transitional housing to date and has an ambitious goal of creating 4,000 additional units of housing for the homeless by 2015.
The organization is also embarking on plans to lead the way in making green design common practice in the field through their Green Design Campaign, through which they hope to create a model that can be replicated by affordable housing developers across the country. By 2011, six green buildings will be opened in New York City and Connecticut. Investing in sustainable features is estimated to result in a cost savings of up to $75,000 each year in the six buildings; however, finding initial funding to install these green features has been somewhat of a challenge.
“Almost none of the government sources providing funding for this project will pay for features that make buildings green,” said Common Ground Executive Director Rosanne Haggerty, adding that the organization was able to forge ahead with its plans by relying on generous donations from the manufacturers of the environmentally-friendly features they were looking to install in each site.
“Our product donation campaign is a very direct link to what I learned from The Center for Leadership Innovation. I realized that unlike other funding sources I had been pursuing for our Green Design Campaign, product manufacturers were a different kind of group to approach; they fall under a different tax structure. The idea of working with manufacturing companies was new to me,” explained Haggerty. “It’s still a work in progress, but in the end, I feel confident in hoping that product donations will represent up to ten percent, or $400,000, of the capital campaign that is funding our green building efforts.”
Collaboration and synergy were programmatic themes that Haggerty drew from immensely during the leadership program. “Typically, when I attend development workshops I am within my own discipline; the occasion to be sharing experiences around leadership, communication, hiring staff – I had never stopped to think about how these challenges applied to all nonprofits. It was amazing to be surrounded by so many high-performing nonprofits focused across so many fields,” said Haggerty.
Building on a friendship she developed through The Center for Leadership Innovation with Will Wilkins, executive director of Real Art Ways, Haggerty will be able to draw on the local arts community when Common Ground opens its housing project – and the city’s first green building – in Hartford, Connecticut. “Collaboration with Will is the other real result of the connection with The Center for Leadership Innovation, for me and for Common Ground,” said Haggerty.
And in the years to come, as Common Ground focuses on applying more innovative solutions and creative partnerships to their work, not only are they sure to meet and perhaps exceed their housing targets – they are also sure to inspire and empower hundreds of formerly homeless individuals like Antoinette to realize their potential and use that potential to ignite positive change in their own communities.