Common Ground is a renowned, non¬profit organization located in New York City that is celebrated both nationally and internationally for its success in the provision of permanent housing coupled with supportive social services to home¬less and low-income people. Founded in 1990, it has developed and managed thousands of apartments and other resi¬dences for disenfranchised individuals.
The organization’s most well-known project is its widely publicized, 1991 renovation of the old Times Square Hotel into 652 studio apartments. This build¬ing had previously been nicknamed “Homeless Hell”, due to its total of 1,700 building code violations and because its resident population had been infiltrated by drug dealers and prostitutes.
Following the “Housing First” phi¬losophy, which does not mandate sobriety as a prerequisite to obtaining housing, this humanely and creatively managed development reduced street homelessness in the Times Square area of New York City by 87 percent.
While housing stability is often tenuous for this population, Common Ground reports an astonishing 95 per¬cent retention rate, which the orga¬nization attributes to its provision of intensive supportive services individu¬ally tailored to each tenant. Less than 1 percent of its tenants have been evicted and approximately 4 percent move on to private housing.
Common Ground’s “Housing First” model is so successful that the organi¬zation’s founder, Roseanne Haggerty, was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 2001.
More recently, Haggerty launched the nationwide 100,000 Homes project, a supportive housing initiative with the goal of identifying the 100,000 most vulnerable homeless people across the United States and housing all of them within three years.
In July of 2011, the board of directors of Common Ground plans to announce the creation of a separate organization called Community Solutions, which will focus on homelessness prevention and supportive housing initiatives both nationally and internationally. Haggerty will head this new organization.
Brenda Rosen, who has been with Common Ground since 1999, was recently promoted to acting executive director of the organization from her most recent position as director of hous¬ing operations and programs.
While it is not unusual to discover that the founder of an organization like Common Ground has a compelling per¬sonal history that has manifested itself in a visionary and humanitarian direc¬tion, the executives who follow are often characterized by far more conven¬tional backgrounds.
A very polished and professional attorney by education and training, Brenda Rosen has personally experi¬enced the shock and hardship of home¬lessness.
This difficult chapter of her life began very suddenly when she was only 10 years old. Rosen’s parents had just moved her family from their residence in the Bronx area of New York City to a more desirable apartment on Roosevelt Island, which is located immediately adjacent to Manhattan in the East River.
Returning with her older brother from an afternoon of swimming at a neighborhood pool ten days later, Rosen discovered their new apartment being consumed in flames. Her family’s residence and all of its contents were destroyed in the fire.
Rosen vividly recalls going in a wet swimsuit and flip-flops to the apart¬ment management office, which was located in another building in the com¬plex, to ask for permission to use the telephone in order to call her parents, who were both at work.
The first of many harsh realities pre¬cipitated by homelessness kicked in immediately; the management com¬pany refused to allow Rosen and her brother to use the office telephone, cru¬elly telling them that their policy did not permit its use by tenants. In addi¬tion, when her parents returned and requested assistance from the manage¬ment company, none was provided. They were told to seek assistance from an organization like the Red Cross.
Like so many homeless people, Rosen’s family had no living relatives available to help. It was only due to intense advocacy by a group of neigh¬bors, all strangers, that the management company gave the family permission to seek shelter in a vacant apartment.
Due to the unfortunate timing of the fire, Rosen’s parents lost most of their important papers and had not yet acquired renter’s insurance. With no clothes, food, furniture or bedding, they moved into a vacant apartment in the complex and slept on the bare floor.
Neighbors and work colleagues brought clothes and furnishings to the family, some of it used, some paid for with cash raised in collections taken up in their behalf. It took her working-class parents several years to get the family back to a normal living situation.
The experience of dealing with such harsh and unresponsive authorities during this crisis impacted Rosen deep¬ly. As she stated, “People shouldn’t be treated this way.” By contrast, receiv¬ing kind and caring supportive services from neighbors who were then strang¬ers taught her that “Strangers will go out of their way to help strangers.”
Rosen made up her mind to become a social worker but shifted her career direction towards public policy, after completing an externship in an hon¬ors program while studying sociology and urban studies at Hunter College in New York City. She’d been selected for the college’s Public Services Scholar Program. During an assignment to the New York City Council Committee on General Welfare, she gained insight that persuaded her that she could have a greater impact on policy as an attorney.
Rosen graduated from Benjamin Cardozzo Law School and accepted a position with the Department of Homeless Services in New York City. She ran the Emergency Assistance Unit, which provided shelter to homeless families and adults.
After several years at DHS, she was contacted by Haggerty and asked to become the first director of the Prince George Hotel, Common Ground’s then newest supportive housing develop¬ment. Rosen has been with the organi¬zation ever since.
Common Ground is New York City’s largest developer of supportive hous¬ing and it is also an award-winning property manager. Having been closely involved with the organization’s pro¬grams and services for the past twelve years, Rosen is expected to pursue its supportive housing development objec¬tives in the Northeast as well as over¬see management of supportive hous¬ing developments owned by Common Ground’s partners.
In addition, she will direct Common Ground’s renowned “Street to Home” program, its new homelessness pre¬vention program, its extensive research programs, its innovative Hospital-to-Home program, and its Foyer program for homeless teens exiting foster care.
Common Ground operates with the confidence that ending homelessness is within its reach. Its housing costs approximately $36 per night to operate, which is significantly less than public expenditures of $54 per night for a city shelter bed, $74 for a state prison cell, $164 for a city jail cell, $467 for a psychi¬atric bed and $1,185 for a hospital bed.
With homelessness growing across our country in recent years, especially in our nation’s suburban and rural areas, it will be fascinating to learn what new initiatives Common Ground will launch under Brenda Rosen’s client-centered and humanitarian stewardship.
Mary M. McLaughlin, Ph.D., is a regular contributor to Spare Change