The following is a conversation between Rosanne Haggerty, CEO of Community Solutions, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: During the COVID-19 crisis, many of us are fearful about leaving our homes, or for that matter, even touching the cardboard box that has been delivered to our front door. So, how would you like to be homeless? And what are the options if you were? Here to discuss that with us is Rosanne Haggerty, the CEO of Community Solutions.
Welcome back to The Business of Giving, Rosanne!
Rosanne: Thank you, Denver. Thank you for focusing on this issue.
Denver: Well, this is such a vulnerable population – lacking stable shelter, access to proper hygiene, basic food supplies. Tell us what are you seeing out there now among the homeless?
Rosanne: Well, as you pointed out, this is an extraordinarily vulnerable population – men and women, families who can’t do the basic things that we know we all need to be doing now, which is to quarantine ourselves and to be mindful of washing, and to limit the distance of our contact with others. When you combine that with the underlying health problems that many individuals experiencing homelessness endure, this is a group of people who require urgent attention. And what we’re seeing is that in many communities, they have not even been taken into account by emergency management responses.
In this most recent two-week period, my colleagues and I have been in touch with probably about a hundred communities around what they’re facing, and it’s very consistent that this lack of clarity about who’s in charge of seeing that people experiencing homelessness are taken care of and brought to safety, that workers engaged in that work have the necessary guidance and equipment to do their work safely, and that the need to get people inside as opposed to simply come up with some other kind of emergency response really needs to kind of move on to the forefront.
So those are the basic issues: lack of clarity of response and responsibility, support for the workforce in dealing with a very volatile situation, and just getting people inside.
Denver: Those are big, big issues.
In this recent stimulus bill, Rosanne, were there any provisions to assist those experiencing homelessness?
Rosanne: Fortunately, yes. $4 billion has been set aside in emergency solutions grants to assist homeless shelters and outreach workers and to help the people experiencing homelessness. So that’s a very good thing. A much larger amount was sought. There are other resources in the bill that go forward to direct housing assistance that could certainly come into play in a very necessary way to prevent more people from becoming homeless. That’s something I don’t think any of us have gotten our heads around completely, but, fortunately, there is this tranche of resources for the homeless.
The question I think for communities will be: Given the fast-moving nature of the problem, how do communities bridge the period of time of: the work that needs to happen now in many places, and the stimulus funds will be coming in a period of time? So, the answer is: Glad that there is money there, and we’re grateful for those who pushed that. We still need a lot of support and flexible resources and commitment to problem solving on the ground during this period where the virus is moving so quickly however.
Denver: Well, we’re both from the New York area. You live in Manhattan. New York is the epicenter of this crisis. What has been happening with Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and how are they addressing this? Maybe just walk us through a little bit of what’s being done and what is not being done.
Rosanne: I think we are all appreciating the clarity of Governor Cuomo’s messages and updates, and the example of a leader taking full accountability for what happens with the whole population.
Denver: They have been fabulous.
Rosanne: Yes. And frankly, it’s that lack of accountability in other places that is putting people at risk. I think we have an exemplary model here. With respect to people experiencing homelessness in New York, the shelter system is under great stress to expand, to create safer distances for those who are in congregate shelters, to create segregation areas for those individuals who have been exposed to the virus or have been hospitalized and are recovering.
I was very impressed…when I was out the other day, I saw a very disoriented young man, and clearly homeless, under a sidewalk shed. He couldn’t even register when I was talking to him about the risks. And as soon as I got to my phone, I contacted the Department of Homeless Services; someone said, “We will get an outreach team out there.” So even in the midst of this crisis, we have very heroic workers going out and taking care of people.
So, I think that that is something that, frankly, is happening all over the country, and yet these are… The frontline workers who…Denver, we really need to start on the other side of this, appreciating that people who do outreach to the homeless, work in shelters. These are like EMTs. They are actually the frontline in our healthcare systems and communities.
And so, I should say one of the things that maybe you and your listeners should be aware of is in all of our communication with community leaders around the country, trying to push kind of effective local responses, people have really come together around three goals. One is to prevent deaths among vulnerable people experiencing homelessness; two is to protect the staff; and third is to protect the healthcare system. Because think of it! This very vulnerable group left in very at-risk circumstances… it’s in all of our interests to make sure people’s risk of having to end up at the hospitals is reduced. And talk about a place to focus on where it’s in all of our interests to recognize those experiencing homelessness as needing our particular support right now.
Denver: I would agree with that wholeheartedly.
Let me ask you about the nonprofit organizations that serve the homeless. They have to be stretched to the bone. I was reading about Miriam’s Kitchen the other day in Washington, D.C., and we know this is a very expensive crisis, and they’re already in a financial crunch. Give us a little idea of what they’re experiencing at the moment.
Rosanne: My two last calls today – one was about Atlanta, and one was about Hartford, Connecticut. And just again, there is this really wonderful network of local leaders who are trying to support each other, and I’m very proud of my colleagues for being at the nexus of many of these conversations.
But for instance, in Atlanta, there’s probably a need for 1,500 isolation areas so that that percentage of the homeless are connected with a place where they are not in a congregate situation. Now, there are hotels and other places that could be available, but when you look at the staffing, the cost of keeping people inside, responding to their needs so they’re not likely to go or require hospital care, that’s millions of dollars if we’re looking at a couple of months until we hope we’re out of the woods. And in Atlanta, for instance, they’re wondering “How do we bridge that distance until the stimulus funds are available?” So, before we got on the phone, I’m making a list of everyone I know in Atlanta who might be able to help out.
But then I also spoke with Matt Morgan in Hartford, who’s the coordinator of the work across the Hartford region, and they have been frantically trying to move the homeless individuals in shelters with the greatest health vulnerabilities– the elderly, into hotel units. And is talking about negotiating some space in a convent. So, basically, people like Matt are just doing the right thing even before they know where the money is going to come from.
And then secondly, how do you get your workforce? People, like their kids are out of school. They’re ill. So just how to execute this massive undertaking with limited staff, and having that decent protective equipment, and make sure you’re asking people to do this work and not put themselves at risk?
So those are the three worries that are repeated over and over again: standing up the kind of isolation units for people who should not be in congregate situations and should not be on the street, and then finding and equipping the staff to do the work.
I think this ripple effect is something we’re barely able to get our heads around. So we actually need to get started thinking about how to prevent those problems…we need a whole reset because the problems faced by the most vulnerable and those on the edge are so profound, we all need to take responsibility for solutions.
Denver: And I know that you and everyone in that community is fully focused on the crisis at hand, but I guess we also have to be a bit concerned that we could have an increase in homelessness when we come out of this, considering the unemployment and what is happening to the economy, correct?
Rosanne: Absolutely right. We have Community Solutions working in a few neighborhoods, in very high stress neighborhoods in normal times. And hearing from my colleagues last night around the numbers of people they’re hearing from, for instance, in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn – they’re Uber drivers. They’re childcare workers. Their jobs have disappeared, and they’re wondering how they’re going to pay the rent.
And so, I think this ripple effect is something we’re barely able to get our heads around. So we actually need to get started thinking about how to prevent those problems. Some of the stimulus money will help, but as many people are saying, we need a whole reset because the problems faced by the most vulnerable and those on the edge are so profound, we all need to take responsibility for solutions.
Denver: You know, you are one of the most significant leaders in this housing and homelessness community. At a time of crisis, sometimes you have to dig a little bit deeper and reach a little bit deeper to bring up and surface some talents and skills that you have to meet this crisis. Have you had to do that? And if so, what have you really tried to bring to the surface?
Rosanne: One appreciates that we need to support each other and I just feel so grateful for my colleagues and all of these community leaders doing the work. And if anything, I find my thoughts going to what messages people need to hear. What can I be delivering, and what can I be reaching to others who are better at things to enlist their help in providing?…But I think there’s an underlying sense that any leader of organizations feels of projecting both a kind of truth and confidence and that we will get through this, but not to sugar coat how severe and challenging the problems are. I think, especially with our team, it’s very much in our DNA to find a way, to really believe that problems are solvable, and to project that to the community leaders that we work with.
And so, what I’ve been realizing myself… and I hope projecting effectively to my colleagues… is that, in some ways, we’re built for this moment. We know we don’t have an option, and we also know how many assets exist in communities that often aren’t brought into play to solve problems, and that this crisis just makes it so clear how we need to kind of step out of our usual roles and our bureaucracies and the stupid rules that we don’t even remember where they came from. Just be there for people. Human lives are…
Denver: Yes. A lot of things we were fighting about two weeks ago sure look silly now, don’t they? And it is interesting in a crisis, as you just said, one of the most important elements is optimism, is a belief that positive, moving ahead, that we will prevail, we will get through this, and we’ll do it well.
Rosanne: Yes. Absolutely right.
Denver: What can listeners do to help, Rosanne?
Rosanne: In your community, the groups working on this issue need your support. Flexible resources to pay for these isolation beds, to help get staff in and bulk up the staff to the extent that they can because these organizations are also not doing their fundraisers or not doing their usual work. So flexible resources. If you’re a hotel operator, a landlord, if you happen to have a convent, let the people who are leading on homelessness in your community know that you can help.
This question about who is in charge, the man to know. Find out if the people working on homelessness in your community have the support that they need from whether it’s the governor, the mayor, the county executive. It really is shocking– the degree to which that is pretty confused in a lot of places, and that’s not just bad for people experiencing homelessness, that’s really bad for you. So demand accountability – Who the heck’s in charge? Who’s making decisions? And are people experiencing homelessness just squarely in the center of what you are taking action on– to see that the most vulnerable are safe?
And then on the other side of this, let’s remember that we are all connected and that beyond that concept, there’s a real practical application of it, which is we need a robust civic and public health infrastructure so we’re not caught flat-footed the next time there’s a problem. We, I think, all sensed how surprised we are that our communities were so ill- equipped to react quickly and have the supplies, the plans, and the leadership capabilities that we need. So let’s commit to not forgetting.
Denver: Yes, absolutely. That’s the big question. Will we commit? And then remember six months after things get back to normal, that this is what we’re going to do. I know how stretched and busy you are, Rosanne, and I really want to thank you for taking a few moments to be with us today.
Rosanne: I so appreciate you’re drawing attention to this very urgent and solvable issue that we all have a stake in. Thank you, Denver.
Denver: Stay well, Rosanne.
Rosanne: You, too.
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