THE HOMELESS IN South Australia are receiving some long overdue attention. In the wake of the State Government's new housing plan, Adelaide's latest Thinker in Residence, Rosanne Haggerty, has been in town advocating her radical housing plans that have delivered a new deal for homeless people in the United States.
Haggerty's charge is to transform an existing "political will" in this state to address homelessness into long-term assistance programs. An estimated 500 people are presently "sleeping rough" in the city, with those in need of emergency housing becoming younger, more aggressive and often addicted to drugs and alcohol - with mental health problems also a significant factor.
She was critical that the current "homelessness system" in SA has a short-term focus to provide basic emergency shelter. Her mantra, that "tough problems get solved", focuses on an assistance system for personal transformation of homeless people, to provide long-term, whole-of-life solutions.
Haggerty's expertise in this area is as a housing developer for the homeless. The New Yorker founded not-for-profit company Common Ground, which in 15 years has renewed six buildings containing more than 1600 apartments to accommodate the homeless, people with low incomes and in low-wage jobs.
Her idea that sparked Common Ground was simple - why not convert old and decrepit large buildings into first-class residential facilities for disadvantaged people? However, building a model to achieve this proved long and laborious. "Most people I spoke to wanted to help," she said, "but they didn't know how."
To create solutions, Haggerty brought together disparate groups. She spoke with people in the welfare sector about paths out of homelessness, to unions about the housing needs of their members - and she courted the corporate sector, discussing access to taxation advantages by investing in her projects, or business partnerships to create training and jobs for Common Ground residents.
Common Ground's first big project rehabilitated the former Times Square Hotel in New York City with funds from a mix of government, non-profit, private and philanthropic interests, providing 652 renovated units. Rents from better-off tenants enabled the poorer to pay less, with Haggerty saying the environment was "normalised" by the diversity of the inhabitants.
Focusing on homeless assistance issues at one of her many meetings in Adelaide, Haggerty emphasised that, "you must put people at the centre of your operation and construct your services and the design of your housing around them".
As proof of this philosophy, Common Ground housing projects tackle myriad related problems experienced by the homeless - including mental health and substance abuse. Each resident has a designated "case manager", who can provide a link to appropriate health or other services, so that formerly homeless residents are helped to rebuild their lives. Common Ground also places very high store on linking its residents to paid work - the business itself is a significant employer, and many are assisted with training and work assignments to help people shift from dependence to independence.
When outlining solutions to homelessness, Haggerty's frequent references about "respect" fit many different contexts - the physical spaces that Common Ground creates convey to the resident that they are valued, while Common Ground's staff are expected to model "respectful" behaviour. The philosophy at work is about individual dignity, nurtured through strong relationships with neighbours through to the wider community.
Haggerty's demure and humble manner hardly fits the stereotype of a housing activist - which perhaps explains her success in forging new alliances and partnerships to find resolutions. Chair of SA's Social Inclusion Board, Monsignor David Cappo, commented that when he first met Haggerty in New York he was "immediately struck by her vision and quiet charisma and, furthermore, that her words and actions confront us with the most fundamental values at the heart of housing the homeless".
Raised in Conneticut and the eldest of eight children, she grew up in a family that placed great emphasis on caring for those who have little. She won a scholarship to the famous liberal arts university Amherst College, majoring in religion. She worked in housing for Brooklyn Catholic Charities for seven years before founding Common Ground, and her work at Common Ground saw her receive a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Award - commonly called the "genius" awards in the United States.
Haggerty is both a thinker and a role model for action. Her methods combine the old ways of communities looking after their own, with a new public-spirited entrepreneurialism. It is an attractive mix, and given the state government's commitments to reducing homelessness - through both the Social Inclusion Initiative and State Housing Plan - Haggerty's visit provides a fresh perspective on how communities, with the will to do so, can provide new hope for the poorest and least powerful members of society.
Rosanne Haggerty will return to Adelaide in 2006 for a further one-month residency to complete her part of the Thinkers In Residence program.
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