Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Homelessness: “Managing towards a shared result”

This is an interview with Roseanne Haggerty, who founded the Common Ground organisation in the US some time ago and is now involved with a different organisation named Community Solutions. She is also on the advisory group of the Institute of Global Homelessness. Her focus is very much on eliminating homelessness. I was kindly introduced to Haggerty by Felicity Reynolds, an Australian I interviewed at around the same time (the beginning of 2018).  The following interview was conducted on 2 March of that year. This post contains about 4000 words.

MdS: Okay. [I’m] recording. So, I spoke with Felicity Reynolds. I think you know her.

RH: Yeah, very well.

MdS: Yeah. So, she told me a little bit about how Common Ground got set up in Australia. I think at that time you were staying in Adelaide for – you had some sort of scholarship there, is that right?

RH: My first visit to Australia was as an Adelaide Thinker in Residence. The South Australian government had, at the time – and this was in 2005 and 2006 – a programme where they would invite – it wouldn’t have to be international but it typically was – international “experts” who had some relevant experience around topics of priority within the South Australian strategic plan. So, that was how I got to South Australia, by invitation of the government as part of this Thinkers in Residence programme.

MdS: Right, and how did you find that? What was that like for you?

RH: It was fascinating on many levels. I had never been to Australia before, and it was very different to – you know, understanding how the different forms and levels of government were in that context. But what was equally interesting, Matthew, was how similar it was, because homelessness, at least in the US context – and this is true if you look in Canada, and I’ve had many relationships and involvement with Australia over what is going on 13 years now, plus in parts of western Europe – what’s striking is how similar this issue is. The way that communities had attempted to respond to homelessness tended to mirror each other, and what was actually effective tended to, as we found, be effective in one context as well as another.

So, I have really treasured relationships and opportunities to work with Australian leaders in this space, and I’m struck by how much we can learn from each other, because the contexts are far more similar than they may appear on the surface.

MdS: Right. So, at that time, you were working with Common Ground in New York. Is that right?

RH: Right. I founded that organisation back in 1990, and at that time our focus was principally – not exclusively – but I’d say 95 per cent of our efforts was on building and operating permanent supported housing, which is the “Common Ground” model, which is distinguished by really very thoughtful, high-quality design, very intentional property management that is oriented at tenant success. The integration of health, mental health, employment services right in the building. And, importantly, a mix of tenancies. So, people coming from homelessness as well as what we would call in the States workforce housing.

So, those were the features of our model, and that was of great interest to folks in Australia. I’ll just say, the other five per cent of Common Ground’s work at that time was actually what’s become to be the Community Solutions work. We’d begun to – we’re building all this housing. It works amazingly well and efficiently for the people within it, and it contributes to the community, but we’re not actually ending homelessness. What else do we have to do? So, it’s the “what else” that Community Solutions has been pursuing. We became – we spun off from Common Ground and became a national organisation about seven years ago.

MdS: Okay, so do you want to talk to me a little bit about what you’re doing now?

RH: Sure. Well, Community Solutions has really evolved this insight that to end homelessness and be able to have (now) 10 US communities end long-term homelessness or inveterate homelessness, and many who are showing steady reductions. It’s because we’ve come to understand that this is an issue that is – it’s more like a hurricane. I guess in Australia it would be like a typhoon or something like that, whatever tropical storm or natural disaster. It’s not a static problem. It’s shifting all the time. You need lots of different people with capacity to respond, to be working together as a team, and just managing towards a shared result which is, “We’re going to solve this problem,” as opposed to having a lot of very well-intentioned and often very important programmes stood up that aren’t that dynamic and that don’t relate to each other. You can understand the difference.

So, Community Solutions has been really in the work of helping communities put a different kind of system in place, one that’s heavily data-driven. It’s about building that ongoing response capacity, which looks like a well-performing public health response that really gets to an end state of eliminating homelessness, beyond the important work of creating more housing. You just need a whole other parallel effort, we’ve found, and that’s what we need in the United States to help communities actually put the right problem-solving teams and behaviours in place.

MdS: Right. One of the things that I’ve come across is that the government in Australia every five years does a census, and they count the people using different categories to count them. One of the categories that they use is to count whether they’re homeless or not, and they’ve got five different definitions which define homelessness. But the number in 2011 was 105,000, and [...] the number for 2016, which is the most recent census, will be 120,000. So, the number of homelessness has actually increased. The other thing that’s striking about the Australian situation right now is that we’ve just come out of a sustained period of rising house prices that started in about 2013 and went up until about the end of last year. So, I think those two things are working together. It’s just so expensive to afford housing in the big cities where the jobs are.

RH: That’s absolutely true, and this is real, but what we have also found is that individuals and families who can’t – because of financial reasons or disability reasons, or other challenges – can’t negotiate the private housing market and need support from charitable organisations or government to secure and maintain stable housing, that those programmes and those resources are very disaggregated.

I could not tell you specifically how things are set up in New South Wales. It’s been too long since I was immersed in the detail, but to give you a flavour, like in New York City – which is a disaster – there are about 11 different housing production programmes with different government grants and loans, four different rent subsidy programmes, probably about – well beyond – 30,000 subsidised tax credit units, 170,000 public housing units – and that’s just the city. That doesn’t include what state and federal government[s] are doing. Many additional resources tied up in the homelessness shelter system. Everybody’s off doing their own thing, and New York is now spending something like $2.3 billion a year to run its shelter system alone.

So, even in a place where you have housing costs that are really off the charts in the city, you also just see this complete disorganised mess of different housing programmes, and one of the great opportunities we see, and many of these communities that are making real progress, they’ve realised that they’ve got to actually get organised, you know, make these programmes work together, make the intentions of actually ending homelessness or dealing with some very urgent housing priorities for certain targeted groups, make that a shared priority that is really owned by local government, state government, not-for-profit and developer communities that use these resources.

So, some of [unclear] just like, you know, what would Toyota do if they were trying to build a car that worked? They would make sure that all the parts connected, that things were optimised, that quality and efficiency and the experience of the user were positive, and that – there are many opportunities, even in very high-cost markets, to actually take a very different lens to this issue and see, like, are we actually – have we designed a housing system that works for people that really need to fall back on it in times of financial or personal or family crisis? That’s the opportunity.

MdS: Yeah. I guess in New South Wales the state government is mostly responsible for providing housing for people who can’t afford it, but we’ve been getting mixed signals from the state minister, and it’s not clear whether he’s making affordable housing, or even such things as inclusionary zoning, a priority. One day he says that he wants to have more policemen and firemen living close to the city, and the next day he’s saying things like, if we put – if we control the rent on these apartments, then it’s going to push up the cost of other apartments in the same building. So, you know, even one person can’t get their message straight, it seems. The developers, it seems, don’t really want to provide affordable housing.

RH: I think you’re perfectly illustrating the conundrum which is: there are a lot of different competing agendas. There are these – some can be anticipated but not all – unintended consequences. Trying to do one good thing could cause something else to go out of alignment. So, this is where we’ve found that we really need to have a community approach with all of the interest groups – not so much the interest groups, but the people with the resources – at the table, and to have a common agenda and measure it. Like, because otherwise things just get bogged down in chaos, and nothing gets targeted and nothing gets accomplished.

MdS: Yeah.

RH: [Inaudible] figure this out. That’s the cool thing. It’s not like we can be wishful about this. It’s like: look at the construction industry. They manage to get buildings up that don’t fall down and get the plumbers and the steam fitters and the sheetrock crews all coordinated. That’s the kind of model for what communities who are gaining ground on homelessness are doing. They’re using project management tools and data the way other industries do to say, “Are we actually getting where we want to go?” “And are we course-correcting every day if we need to?” “If what we do on Tuesday has some unintended effect by Thursday, we’re going to regroup Friday and try to rebalance things.”

MdS: So, that’s what you’re trying to do at the moment. You’re trying to take a more holistic approach?

RH: Precisely, and use tools that have been proven out in other industries to actually get more reliable, optimal, high-quality results from the point of view of the user. Homelessness? There are a couple of different users. One is the homeless individual or family itself. The other is the organisations who are trying to be effective. Then there’s the community that wants to see the problem solved for vulnerable people, and that their public dollars are going in an effective direction.

MdS: Yeah. I think most people do at least wonder, when they see the person on the street corner with the cup in their hand and their head on the pavement, “Why can’t we do something?”

RH: Yeah. The crazy thing is, you know, while without a doubt communities need more affordable housing, that alone won’t solve the problem. Conversely, communities that we’re working with – we’re working with about 75 communities around the United States – they’re discovering that they have a lot more resources than they thought once they start actually being very accountable for results. Like, “Why are we spending money on this?” “It’s getting no result.” “Let’s pull it back in.” “Why are we holding these units off the market?” “Who’s responsible for it?” “Okay, there’s a waiting list, we can’t find the people who are moving in.” “Actually, why do we have a waiting list when we’re trying to do something urgent?” And, “We have to use different decision-making guidelines.”

So, these kinds of things, they don’t get you all the way to an end to homelessness, but they sure get you far down the road. What we’re finding in communities that are actually working in this disciplined way, you see new people stepping forward with new resources to help fill gaps. I was talking with this businessman in Denver just at the beginning of the year, and he was like – his group is investing their social impact fund in buying additional units that are on the open market to basically make them more affordable, and to keep them in the [unclear] of affordability. I was saying, “You know, awesome that you’re doing this. What got you interested in being part of this project?” He said, “Well, here in Denver, we smell a win.”

This is someone who never, until Denver started making really strong progress on ending chronic inveterate homelessness and was able to show its results and show where it stood, and where the gaps were in the housing market, these new folks stepped in with resources. We see that beginning to happen in other cities too. We were just meeting with a group in Atlanta of property developers who were like, “Hey, okay, this looks like a solvable problem.” It’s not raging out of control. People know what they’re doing. So, that’s the promise. If you get your arms around the kind of problem it is – that it’s a dynamic, complex, shifting problem – and realise that those communities are completely disorganised when it comes to how they’re lining up their housing resources, you’ve got a lot of opportunity to make progress.

MdS: Sure, that’s right. There was a really weird talk that the state government minister here went to, he opened up this organisation called the Housing Supply Association, which is some sort of front group for developers they’ve put together so they can build more affordable housing. He talked to them for hours, just down the road here where I live in Pyrmont, and everyone seemed to be on the same page, but then once they’ve launched this association and they start getting developers to register their interest in being part of these projects, nothing seemed to happen. The business of developing apartments or housing is all about making as much money as possible, and the other problem in Australia – I don't know if you’ve had the same problem in America, I think you have – is that even though unemployment is going down, wages are not rising even though cost of living is rising.

So, you’ve got these twin problems of high rents and high housing prices and stagnant wages, which is putting people out of [their homes]. So, the government says, “Well, we’ve got to step in and do something.” But like you said, they just can’t get organised to take the next logical step. We know that governments can do this. We know that they’ve got the ability if they’ve got the will-power, but it’s getting that force – and it’s great to see that you’ve got people stepping up, developers stepping up in America, and saying we want to do this, because we think it’s the right thing to do. Because I think that, in the end, that’s really the only way that these problems are going to get solved.

RH: Totally agree with you, Matthew. It’s the private landlords and developers that control most of the housing. They need to be part of this, and they can’t be naming their own terms. These are community-level problems, and what makes a difference in Denver, in Atlanta, these two places I mentioned, and a couple of other places where we’ve seen, is real leadership from developers. People with a conscience saying, “Hey, we’re the people in this community with the properties, with the expertise. How do we participate?” What seems very – there are a couple of things that have been important, I think, in these areas where we see that kind of leadership.

One is, the community has its act together, and they know how many units they need. They’re like, “We need 325 units more than we have in Denver to end inveterate homelessness.” To that extent, they can be concrete, as opposed to just, “We need more.” Having a target is very mobilising. Second thing is that these developers know that they’re not out there alone, that there is a not-for-profit or a reliable government agency, that if there’s a problem with the rent or a health or behavioural issue, that they can call a reliable trusted partner who will jump in to help problem-solve, that makes a big difference.

The other thing is, “Don’t tie me up in paperwork!” If I’m going to help you out here, don’t make me sit here for six weeks sending me one fat envelope of forms after another to fill out. Just make it easy. If you can do that, we’ve found that in communities all over this company that are part of this Built for Zero private landlords are stepping up, and in some cases landlord groups like in Denver and Atlanta are just coming together to say, “Just tell us what you need us to do.”

MdS: Built for Zero, that’s the new movement that you’re leading, is that right?

RH: Correct, yeah, the organisation is Community Solutions, but this is our principal focus, driving this behaviour change and this different – and this vision that this is a solvable problem, but we have to change the way we’re working.

MdS: Okay. Alright. Well, it’s been really interesting talking with you. I’m just writing a series of blogposts because I’m interested in the problem. I walk around the city a lot and I see a lot of young people, especially, on the street, and begging for money. So, that’s how I started to get into these blogposts, and I found that there’s a lot of demand out there for them. People enjoy reading about these types of things, because I think that there is this shared feeling that we should do something about this, especially in wealthy countries like the OECD. It seems like some countries – I’ve heard that Finland has done particularly well in eliminating homelessness. Is that right?

RH: Yeah, exactly. They’ve done the best in Europe. They haven’t eliminated it altogether, but they’re much further along than everyone else, and they’ve measurably reduced it. The key thing they did differently, Matthew, was that they used to have, like, 6000 shelter beds. They were like, “Wait a minute.” If housing is the answer, what are we doing keeping people in this suspended animation? So, they went through and they basically renovated these buildings, and I guess acquired other ones, and really just committed full-on to creating affordable housing for people who’ve been experiencing homelessness, and to really gearing their system to getting people quickly back into housing and not in this endless emergency state.

I think they only just have one very small shelter that’s really about a genuine emergency and triage place left in Helsinki, and all of their investment now goes to housing.

MdS: I think inclusionary zoning is probably – thinking about the Australian situation, and scattershot – what do you call it? Scatter site housing?

RH: Scatter site, yeah.

MdS: This  is the term Felicity used. So, you have people who have, for example, mental health issues or some other personal issue who can’t afford normal housing on the commercial rental market, who are housed along with other people, just like in the Common Ground that we’ve already got. I think that type of model is probably going to be the one that gets most support from the government in Australia, because they don’t like having these dysfunctional developments that you used to find back in the ‘80s in Europe, especially in England and places like that. But you’ve got to get the developers to come on board and commit to locking rents on some of those apartments.

Some of the municipal councils, who are the ones who approve developments in Australia, have set up a system where they’ll give the developer the ability to build extra units in a development if the developer will make some of those units, say for a period of 10 years, affordable housing at an affordable rent. So, there are some things like that coming through.

RH: That’s such an important strategy. One of the things, I think, after working on this issue for many years I can say with confidence is, there’s no one solution. You basically have to have the intention, we’re going to solve this problem, and look at every opportunity, from inclusionary zoning to looking at occupancies and housing, looking at, you know, can you look at zoning and the incentives and construction practices, and can you think – you know, your local employers to helping to be problem solvers if [unclear] or seasonal work is part of the challenge, your mental health system. Everybody has to feel that it’s everybody’s responsibility to help to contribute to solutions and have a sense of what role they can play.

But yeah, inclusionary zoning, very smart. There are a lot of other, in that vein, things that we see people doing that increase the range of housing options that are available without building something entirely new, but just embedding part of the solution to this within some other development, or using buildings differently and making it easier for people to get building permits. Every bit of function in the system is worth looking at.

The person that – I haven’t checked their website, but I know that they’ve got a good one. I was just at what’s called the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, last week, on a panel, and they had this terrific exhibit up called Making Room. It’s a few rooms full of displays on innovative things happening in housing in the United States. A lot of this would be under the radar. It’s just like, here’s a co-housing project, here’s a design and construction project, here’s an inclusionary zoning project. Just, you could step back and say, if we did all this at scale, we would solve this problem. You might find it interesting, because they did a good job in this exhibit of highlighting, you know, like what’s different about it, and why it’s promising as far as expanding housing opportunities.

MdS: I’ll have a look online, and I’ll see if I can find anything about it. Thank you.

RH: Yeah, it’s really good. Sure.

MdS: Okay. Is there anything else that you think that I should [know]– I don’t presume to call myself anything like an expert. That’s why I’m talking to people who I think know more about this than me. But I’m just wondering if there’s anything else that you’d like to add before we finish up.

RH: Maybe just to highlight that point, that it’s not just the housing system, and it’s not just more housing. I think it’s also – one of the things we’ve learned is – more types of housing options. Ways that we see some of the communities making progress here is that they have really re-thought what shared housing could look like. They re-thought the interior arrangement of certain buildings. It’s a certain area for innovation, not just how do we build more housing, but more types of housing options as part of that strategy that each city needs to develop. 

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