Fourteen years ago, a New York charity worker conceived a revolutionary idea aimed at helping the city’s most neglected citizens, the chronic homeless. Despite years of industry experience, charity organisations approached were disinterested in pioneering her idea. Undaunted, she single-mindedly persisted until she found sympathetic supporters to fulfil her vision. Nor was her vision timid. Within a few years her holistic housing dream to provide permanent accommodation in one building for 652 homeless and low-income workers was being hailed a success. The charity worker’s name is Rosanne Haggerty, her commodity is the homeless and her solution is the Common Ground Project.
Ms Haggerty’s solution is so logically simple, one wonders why it took so long to be discovered. In 1990 she formed “a non profit housing and community development organisation whose mission is to solve homelessness”, through changing the lives of people who have disabling conditions, which make it nigh impossible for them to find permanent housing and re-engage with the everyday world. Ms Haggerty has two basic beliefs: “Without the stability of a home, people can’t get traction” and “it costs a lot less to help people change their lives rather than maintain them in chaos”.
So what makes her concept different to other initiatives to assist the homeless? It is her efficient use of finite resources combined with the four pillars of success that create a holistic solution. Her Common Ground Project collaborates with government, businesses, charities, homeless advocates and citizens to fund the refurbishment of derelict hotel buildings located in the heart of cities. Beautifully preserved buildings provide well -appointed, inexpensive, studio style living for single people in buildings ranging in size from 652 beds to 120 beds.
Initially one may think this sounds like the work being undertaken by the Brisbane Housing Company (BHC) a new initiative of the Queensland Government and Brisbane City Council to create “affordable housing” for our homeless. There are similarities and differences.
In a report by Madeline Healy in the Courier-Mail December 6, 2003, Mr Seymour the chairman of the BHC says, “I want to make this the best financial model in Australia for an affordable housing organisation so Queensland can proudly say we have created something that the rest of Australia can follow”. The BHC’s goal is to minimise construction and refurbishment costs while not skimping on quality and amenity and it is on target to achieve this goal. Sections of the homeless community will be offered housing stability, hope and quality inner-city accommodation.
But unfortunately they will not receive the benefits, many of them intangible, offered by Common Ground. The charter of the BHC prevents it from embracing Common Ground’s holistic approach towards the most marginalised of the homeless: the addicts; the mentally ill; aids sufferers; and the long-term rough sleepers and street homeless. These are the ones who usually slip beneath the radar when it comes to attracting effective and adequate funding from governments and sustained public interest and support. For a life changing experience, these people need an alternative to the BHC.
Common Ground is the alternative. On completion of a refurbishment, a consortium that involves representatives from a church charity, homeless advocates and non-profit housing operators run the day-to-day operation. The four pillars of success provide the stable environment guaranteeing her hotel bears no similarity to common perception of a stereotypical homeless ghetto. Residents have disposable income as only 30 per cent of their income is spent on rent. This compares favourably with rentals for BHC units, which are set at 75 per cent of the suburb’s average rental and can absorb a high proportion of a welfare beneficiary’s income.
Accommodation is divided on a fifty-fifty basis between the homeless and single low-income “key” workers such as teachers, nurses, cleaners, artists and so on, so each housing complex is home to an interesting cross section of people. This is the first pillar of success: 50 per cent of residents are comfortable in mainstream society.
The second pillar of success is the case-worker allocated to each ex-homeless resident along with on-site counselling services, clinics, job training and placement services. The goal is to re-assimilate the homeless into the mainstream.
As private accommodation space in the hotel is minimal, large communal areas of open deck living, libraries, computer rooms, studios and lounges encourage resident interaction. The aim is to provide companionship, to create a sense of community, to foster feelings of wellbeing and to present positive role models for the ex homeless. This is the third pillar of success. On-site retail outlets such as ice cream parlours, restaurants and coffee shops provide contact with non-residents, jobs for residents and rental income to offset running costs. This is the fourth pillar of success.
The gospel of Common Ground is stability, bettering lives and saving costs. So how does the concept measure up? Her first project opened in 1994 in Times Square, New York, has a turnover rate of 4 per cent and eviction rate of 1 per cent, says a 2001 report. Common Ground claims it costs the city US$11,400 per year per resident to support a resident living in Times Square compared with US$23,000 to $36,000 at a city shelter. Other reports claim 85 per cent of the ex- homeless are gainfully employed with some saving to purchase their own homes - and the indomitable Ms Haggerty has ideas on this too.
The gospel message has been received in inner city London where a similar urban village project for 400 is under development through Crisis, a UK charity group, with seed money from Pink Floyd guitarist, Mr Gilmour. Mr Ghosh , CEO of Crisis believes there is something wrong when initiative after initiative to solve the problem of rough sleepers leaves people still on the streets. He is looking for a new solution to help the homeless, and believes the Common Ground results speak for themselves. Mr Ghosh says, “Providing soup and blankets is hard but nowhere near as hard as rebuilding lives. But if you put homeless people in to contact with working people, they become hugely motivated to help themselves”.
According to Common Ground’s website www.commonground.org, the Common Ground Community Project is encouraging replication of its concept, and to this end has conducted conferences attended by representatives from other countries including Australia.
So can we expect a genuine Common Ground model in Australia, or will the future bring us yet another male version? Do you think as I do: a permanent change in the lives of the chronic homeless takes a different approach. To revive, focus interest and draw these homeless into mainstream society it takes a woman’s touch.