Activist Tackles Homelessness Head On
Issue   |   Mon, 11/12/2012 - 21:57

Despite an increase in the homeless population of America over the last several years, most people who have not been homeless don’t think for even a second about this issue. Few people bother to look behind the image and see the person beneath, or to understand why homelessness is so prevalent and what factors could have led to someone’s homelessness. This is because homelessness is an issue of convenience for so many; when you walk by, you might give a dollar to feel better about yourself, but for most, this is about it. Anything else wouldn’t be convenient.

For Rosanne Haggerty ’82, working with homelessness isn’t just a fleeting emotion or an issue of convenience. In fact, even though she’s been involved with the issue for 30 years, it isn’t even just a job for her: it’s a life-calling. What initially started as a one-year volunteering experience after her graduation from Amherst soon blossomed into a 30-year career searching for solutions to curb homelessness in the United States.

Despite her length of service, Haggerty shows no signs of tiring, as she is constantly looking to the present to better understand where social reform needs to go in the future. The same determination and focus that helped her at Amherst lends her the resiliency to cut through problems to attack the heart of social injustices. She has helped provide permanent homes for thousands of people, but she has also initiated reforms that have served as models for future projects to help end homelessness. Beneath Haggerty’s success lies a burning passion for social justice, something that was both fostered by and influential in her decision to attend Amherst.

Acclimating to Amherst

Haggerty grew up in West Hartford, Conn., the daughter of two teachers and the oldest of eight children. Despite her parents’ interest in education, she knew nothing of Amherst for most of her childhood. It wasn’t until the summer before her senior year of high school when she was attending a yearbook workshop at the College, as the editor of the Hall High School Yearbook, that she discovered Amherst. Upon arriving at the College that summer, she noted that she “instantly fell in love with the campus and the experience of being there.” She was still excited, but felt “pretty intimidated, but mainly very fortunate to be there.”

Her interests in a variety of departments and fields drove her to decide on an American Studies major. Her two favorite classes while at Amherst were “Emerson, Dickinson, and Thoreau and their World,” a class which sometimes met at the Emily Dickinson Homestead, and a class centered around the Progressive Movement, which she took as an independent study because the class wasn’t being offered that semester. Haggerty describes both an interdisciplinary academic experience and the professor’s willingness to teach a class not already being offered to three students as an independent study as quintessential Amherst experiences. Outside of academics, she furthered the interest in journalism that initially brought her to Amherst by serving as the chair of The Student, the first female student to hold this position.

Helping the Homeless

It was the class on the Progressive Movement that would eventually serve Haggerty most directly in her future career. She wrote that Amherst as a whole fostered her to do “a lot of thinking about my political and social beliefs” and how it helped her become “more comfortable asking uncomfortable questions.” This is something she took from her parents, who she acknowledges were always interested in social justice, and the Progressive Movement class allowed her to connect social justice and social policy legislation more clearly. These experiences motivated her to take a full-time volunteership at a New York non-profit homeless shelter for homeless youth in New York City. While this could have initially been merely a stop on her way to other careers, she soon found herself disappointed with the effectiveness of the shelter.

“I was so unsettled by how ineffective our well-intentioned work was that I stayed in New York City and took a job learning to build affordable housing,” Haggerty said.

Her interest clearly sparked, she wanted to learn as much about the issue as possible, something echoed by her colleague Becky Kanis’ later experience knowing Haggerty. Kanis, the head of the 100,000 Homes campaign aimed at provided permanent housing for the homeless across the country, spoke about Haggerty’s innovation.

“Rosanne is definitely in that three percent of the population that can be accurately categorized as ‘innovators.’ The breadth and range of her curiosity and her willingness to expose herself to other sectors, to other ways of thinking, enables her to consistently look at almost any problem or opportunity with an inside-out point of view,” Kanis said. “This unique ability is what helps Rosanne contribute a key insight that sounds crazy in the moment, but sometimes years later is proven to be the turning point in how to solve a problem.”

The Root of the Problem

In Haggerty’s view, her first big realization was that, despite the causes of homelessness, housing was the primary issue, and because of this, it would be providing housing that would lead to the stability necessary to prevent further homelessness. This led her to the Brooklyn Catholic Charities Housing Development for eight years before founding Common Ground in 1990, a project she had been working on for a lengthy time and which served as the fruit of her labor to put housing first in solutions to homelessness. Common Ground began as a project to renovate and save the Times Square Hotel, turning it into affordable housing for homeless people and using this as an outlet to help them with health, mental health and employment issues. Haggerty was able to generate interest in the idea, but was unable to find an organization to implement the plan. Instead, she founded Common Ground to jumpstart the program. Since then, it has been a great success, serving not just as a housing for approximately 650 formerly homeless people at any one time but as a community and as a model for many other buildings which have since been implemented to serve the same purpose.

“The Time Square Hotel … led to ‘supportive housing’ being recognized around the country and internationally as being a smart, humane and cost effective way to end homelessness,” Haggerty said.

In this regard, the communal aspect of the housing creates an environment that fosters support among the residents for each other, and it allows them to work with one another to secure help for the unique problems facing each. She further reflected that this was important not simply because it was successful initially, but because it was able to increase support by presenting homelessness as a solvable issue. Her work in this regard was important as an initiator for a revolution in the thought process about how to approach homelessness, and its effects are longer lasting than she initially could have imagined.

Same Problem, New Solutions

However, her success with Common Ground did not deter Haggerty from searching for further ways to curb homelessness. This led to the creation of a special “innovations” unit with Common Ground to investigate, develop, research and implement new policies with the potential to change the way homeless advocacy is treated in society. Haggerty herself is a key advocate of community-based solutions, which provide communities and neighborhoods throughout the country with the resources to tackle homelessness themselves, as well as the understanding that it is an issue worth focusing on and treating humanely. In 2011, this unit actually morphed into a new organization, Community Solutions, which Haggerty, ever the visionary, chose to focus primarily on.

“Shelters, emergency rooms and other crisis responses to homelessness cost a lot, don’t solve the problem and distract energy and effort that can better be used assisting people in holding on to their homes or quickly moving back into a home,” Haggerty said.

Community Solutions had been working recently on a campaign called 100,000 Homes, mainly focused on using “data and process improvement techniques” and training community members across the country on how to use these methods. They also advocate focusing on groups who have specific housing needs and tailoring each solution to that specific group. In addition, they try to build networks within communities of residents.

“It is so much smarter, more decent and more cost effective to solve problems at their sources, so that’s what we’re trying to do,” Haggerty said.

Haggerty’s colleagues speak highly of both her unique insight for solutions and her relentless determination to implementing her ideas into practice. Her colleague Kanis described her effectiveness in glowing terms.

“The key to understanding Rosanne as a leader is her fearlessness and her relentlessness. Once she has it in her mind that something is the right thing to do, she will go for it, and she won’t quit until it’s done and done right,” Kanis said. “Rosanne had the foresight to imagine that England’s Rough Sleepers Initiative — one that virtually eliminated street homelessness in the UK — could work in Times Square."

Through Rosanne’s vision and willingness to risk failure, street homelessness was indeed down by 87 percent in 2007 in that neighborhood, which set the stage to revolutionize the largest city in the nations’ response to street homelessness and planted the seeds of one of our latest projects, the 100,000 Homes Campaign. Rosanne takes on projects that would cause angels to stop and think twice. Take Brownsville, the neighborhood with the highest murder rate in NYC, one of the highest rates of removal of children to foster care, incarceration and family homelessness — Haggerty planted our team there in 2005 when no one else was willing to provide services for people about to lose their homes, and has refused to budge ever since.”

She has not gone unnoticed by others as well, even winning the MacArthur Fellowship for her innovative impact on methodologies for ending homelessness in the U.S.

Giving Back

Her determination and insight has not merely included issues of homelessness; Rosanne also served on the Amherst Board of Trustees.

“As to things ‘Amherst’, she was ‘pitch perfect’,” said her colleague who served with her, Amos Hostetter.

She also served on the President Search Committees, which resulted in the hiring of both Presidents Tom Gerety and Tony Marx. And her experience with finding alternate uses for buildings served her well here too.

“[Haggerty] showed us all the wisdom of repurposing a number of the campus’ most important buildings which were threatened by the wrecking ball and she willingly took on the most difficult assignments with sensitivity and Grace,” Hostetter said.

Staying the Course
When asked whether she will continue with this cause, she responded, “Absolutely, but my awareness of what the ‘cause’ is has changed. The key in my view is strengthening the most challenged communities in our country and the capabilities of those who have been left behind.”

And her commitment extends to her interest in the next generation as well, as she believes that it is important that students today “think about putting your education to use on solving big problems facing our society” above all else. She takes great joy in helping others, and when asked what she enjoyed most, she responded bluntly, “seeing someone move into a home.”

This love, care and affection have changed the world in many ways and she has touched the lives of thousands: her organization has put at least 22,000 people into homes. But even with 30 years of experience, Haggerty shows no signs of discontinuing her work with housing and homelessness. More importantly, Haggerty seems like she wouldn’t have it any other way.