The following is a conversation between Rosanne Haggerty, President & CEO of Community Solutions, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Rosanne Haggerty, President & CEO of Community Solutions

Denver: As regular listeners of this podcast know, The Business of Giving has closely covered the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change global competition since its inception. The competition seeks to identify the proposal that promises the greatest, real, and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time.

This year, MacArthur awarded the $100 million award to Community Solutions to accelerate an end to homelessness in 75 US communities in five years. And here to tell us more about it, it’s a pleasure to have back Rosanne Haggerty, the president and CEO of Community Solutions. Congratulations, Roseanne!

Rosanne: Thank you, Denver, and thank you for having us back. 

Denver: So, what was it like for you and your extended team when you received word, out of 755 entrants who had submitted proposals, that your Built for Zero initiative had been declared the winner of the $100 million grant award from the MacArthur Foundation?

Rosanne: Some combination of thrilled, stunned, humbled, grateful that probably characterized the team’s response, especially since the other finalists were amazing organizations, and we learned so much through the process. We just are grateful to have gotten that far.

So, we are especially excited for what this means for this issue at this moment in history, especially excited for the extraordinary community partners who are really the essence of the Built for Zero work. So, to wrap it all up, we are really excited. 

Homelessness is such an urgent and actionable public health crisis, and it’s such an urgent and actionable racial justice issue.

Denver: So are we. What do you think was the strongest part of the proposal? Was there any aspect of it you think that may have given you a little competitive advantage over the other submissions? 

Rosanne: I will say that maybe two things come to mind. One is that the work that we propose to do has already been really strongly proven out at scale. We work now with 89 communities, and at the time we submitted our final application, 14 of those had already ended homelessness for one or more populations. So we had a very coherent theory of change, proven results, willing communities, and a real runway to what we believe will be a tipping point on homelessness in the country within five years. 

And then coupled with, I believe, just an issue that is ripe for this moment. Homelessness is such an urgent, and frankly, through this work that we’re doing with communities, actionable public health crisis, and it’s such an urgent and actionable racial justice issue. Disproportionately, homelessness affects Black and Native Americans, and we have, at this pressing moment of needing to make progress together as a nation, something that is working, something that has already been embraced by communities of every type of political orientation and across the country.

And so, I think those two things, Denver, made our proposal a particularly strong one for this moment. 

Denver: That’s really interesting you say that, too, because I don’t think that people appreciate the timing of things, that this proposal could have been the exact same proposal, but at a different time might not have the resonance.

 I was fortunate to be the head of the fundraising for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty, which was in 1984 to ’86. And it had been right after the Carter years and the recession, and then you sort of had Morning in America. And I look at all those things, and that became an outlet. And I don’t know if it would have been more successful or as successful in some other times. So, sometimes, timing is such a big, big piece in terms of being in the right place. 

So, having followed your work for a number of years now, I’ve really been struck, Rosanne, at the evolution of your approach to this challenge of homelessness, which ultimately ended up with Built for Zero. Tell us a little bit about that journey from 2011 to 2021.

Rosanne: The journey actually began even earlier, when initially, our core team worked together to build supportive housing… and lots of supportive housing… which is absolutely a critical component in a community’s effective response to homelessness. 

But what we were seeing and what led to the creation of Community Solutions was that this is not a problem you can build your way out of. And when we went and kind of reset our own kind of thinking on the issue, we did so by going and speaking at length with scores of individuals living on the street to find out why they were still there, why were they not able to access the help they needed to get back into housing in a city that was spending literally billions of dollars– New York City– on responding to homelessness.

And what we found is the fragmented response, that it was almost impossible to piece together a path out of homelessness or to find effective, simple, reliable help in avoiding homelessness, given the way New York and other communities typically organize their services, which are kind of a smorgasbord of very well-intended and important efforts, but not connected. No one was accountable for results. It actually is no one’s job in the City of New York to end homelessness, simply to respond to the crisis and comply with legal mandates. 

And so, we started working on that question, Denver. What would it mean for a community to come together to actually start with the intention of getting to zero homelessness? And initially, our hypothesis was we just had to make all of the activities around homelessness be focused on accelerating housing placements. And we did that for a four-year period, saw lots of progress through the 100,000 Homes Campaign with communities realizing that that had to be a critical measure.

But even then, we saw that it wasn’t leading to overall reductions in homelessness to simply focus on accelerating housing. And that reset, which was like start with the end state – zero, get everybody’s work pointing in the same direction, measure it in the appropriate way to see if it’s all adding up to what every community’s work should be about, which is reducing homelessness; and that learning journey has resulted in Built for Zero. And it took us a few years, even, to figure out how to best pull a community team together, the kind of training they’d need, and importantly, the kind of information they’d need to know if what they were doing was working. 

And that all clicked in really, I would say, maybe about four years ago. And since then, it’s been a steady and difficult process, but these amazing communities have stuck with it because they have seen results, that when they actually work this problem, they would… like with COVID, like a whole community has to work together to get the population-level results. They have to know what’s going on by name in real time among those who are experiencing homelessness. They have to make decisions for the benefit of the whole community, not just to kind of benefit a single program. 

And it’s that combination of work that really, we have struggled to learn and master over many years.  And that communities are now practicing within the Built for Zero movement is why we’re seeing results and why we are so confident that this is the path to, actually, an end state on this issue– where homelessness is actually rare overall, and brief when it occurs.

Denver: That is so interesting, too. Instead of counting up, you started counting down, and essentially… 

Rosanne: Exactly. 

Problem-solving is not one and done, but a capacity to keep learning and reacting toward a shared, measurable aim of no homelessness in the community. But you could substitute other harms that are preventable and quickly addressable if everybody is sharing the same goal. That’s what we’ve learned. That it’s basically a way of thinking and working, not a single kind of program or remedy.

Denver: Yes. And counting up sometimes is the way an organization looks to see what we’ve done. And counting down is really the elimination of the problem or the issue. And it just changes the entire focus. 

 At the heart of this initiative, this competition, is problem-solving. I read it in the initial statement. And probably, Rosanne, a question I get asked by more guests on this show is about problem-solving. And since you are now the– everybody looks to Community Solutions and Built for Zero, what can you tell us about problem-solving, and how you approach it and your philosophy about it that might be useful to somebody else who’s trying to get their arms around an issue? 

Rosanne: We are really seeing, Denver, that what we’ve learned through Built for Zero may well be the future of how communities solve the challenges of vulnerable people and getting to a place where we have kind of a functional safety net because usually, it’s not for want of money. It’s for, like, how do we organize our efforts to see that we have less of a bad thing? That we eliminate the problems that are within our grasp. 

And I’d say, what problem-solving looks like in this complex kind of world we’re in now, where everything relates to everything else, is having communities that are set up with the relationships, the tools, and the information to keep learning and adapting to problems that are by their nature, not actually suited to single, silver bullet technical responses. 

And by that, I mean the Built for Zero community basically has a team of all of the key actors who touch the problem. They have by-name, real-time information on those experiencing it. They have training in data analytics and in quality improvement, basically a way to keep problem-solving and to see how a problem is moving and changing, and the structure to respond to it in real time. 

And that actually is much… that way of thinking about problem-solving is not one and done, but a capacity to keep learning and reacting toward a shared, measurable aim of no homelessness in the community.  But you could substitute other harms that are preventable and quickly addressable if everybody is sharing the same goal. That’s what we’ve learned. That it’s basically a way of thinking and working, not a single kind of program or remedy.

Denver: Sometimes, when I think of problem-solving in my lifetime, I always think of a binder… where the solution is in it, and that is so static. And I remember Morgan Dixon of GirlTrek said that one of her keys was that she wakes up every single morning realizing she knows nothing, and then talks to the people that she serves. So it’s almost every single day, you have to update your solution because it’s just a dynamic world in which we live. 

Rosanne: Precisely. I will say, though, that there are certain principles that you can put in place that allow you to basically be in the space of continual problem-solving. And that really is about an integrated response across a community, not single programs. Knowing people by name in real time who are experiencing the problem, and having a feedback loop that tells you whether what you’re doing is working and when it’s time to change it up — how that looks in any community may be different, but that basically… the basic way of organizing your activity is what we’re seeing is the key. And you could apply that, we believe, to just about any issue.

Denver: That’s great. $100 million – that’s $20 million bucks over five years. What are you going to do with the MacArthur Award Roseanne? 

Rosanne: Well, what we had proposed to MacArthur was our strategic plan, happily, Denver. So, it’s not like we have to, “Oh no! No. How are we going to get this special project tranche?” But it was like, “Here’s what we’re planning to do. It would be a lot easier to do it if we actually had your $100 million.”

And so, what we are going to be focusing on are two pivotal strands of work. One is getting a critical mass of communities–and we’ve defined that as 75– to this functional zero homelessness state, where homelessness is rare and brief and measurably so, that the system that I’ve described is in place. And that 75 communities of every size and shape and geography have now reached that milestone for one or more or all populations. And then, on the other lane, we will be working to remove the barriers in the policy environment that have made it difficult for any community to make this kind of progress. 

And so the goal is to have the conditions in place in five years where any community can be solving this problem, and that the expectation has been set, given all of this evidence, and the more manageable policy environment that any community is actually held to the standard of ending homelessness. That just responding to the problem will no longer be acceptable, to echo your earlier point. 

We do think that this is an idea whose time has come, that this is a problem we don’t need to have in this country, and that within five years, we will be actually in a different place policy-wise, and expectation-wise, and practice-wise. 

Denver: If I recall correctly, the Built for Zero budget was–I don’t know–$6.5 million, somewhere in that neck of the woods. And now, you have $20 million on top of that, I guess. What are the challenges of scaling that quickly that much? I know you had to put something forth for MacArthur on this. And how are you approaching those scaling challenges? 

Rosanne: We will be expanding from 89 communities to no more than 110 communities by next spring. And a community is typically a county or a region of counties. We tend to use the unit of geography called a Continuum of Care, which is a HUD-designated region for distributing funds for the homeless. 

And so, we’ll be expanding to 110. We’ll be adding staff both permanently and on kind of what we’re calling a “surge basis” for that five-year period. And we will be passing through, in terms of community investments to each participating community, resources to assist them with the change management process.

That’s what we find is the most difficult thing for communities. It’s not necessarily the new money for this program or that program that may be needed, but someone to actually manage the shift from this collection of activities to one synchronized outcome-focused approach, and so money that would be in the form of community investments to expand our staff. 

And we’ll be creating a housing acquisition fund with– we’ve proposed $10 million of the MacArthur funding to help large cities in our network that really do have housing supply problems get those last-mile housing supply gaps filled by… actually, the MacArthur funds will seed a larger fund to help those communities acquire existing assets and actually be able to get to an end on veteran homelessness. So, we would see this is a model for other funds that would help with other housing supply issues as well. 

So those are the big tranches. 

Denver: They are big. Let me pick up on something you said a moment ago, and that was embedding racial equity more strongly into the Build for Zero plans. Tell us a little bit more about that and how you’re going to do it. 

Rosanne: Well, we have already introduced– after a couple of years of working with communities, with experts in the field, and with people who’ve lived the experience of homelessness, we’ve introduced a racial equity framework to help communities as they’re ending homelessness make sure that they’re doing so in a racially equitable way. And so, this also goes to the importance of good and accurate and comprehensive data on who is experiencing homelessness. You need to be able to have that data quality to disaggregate what’s happening by race. 

And so, our Built for Zero coaches work with communities at every point in the journey to see: In terms of your outreach, is everyone being accounted for? Or are people having differential experiences, even at that point of their suffering being recognized on a racial basis? Are people moving through the process of getting rehoused in a way that’s equitable? Are people having the same opportunities and choices of housing on a racially equitable basis? Are people experiencing the process in a way that is respectful and dignified? And so, there’s a qualitative part of the framework.

And so, to join Built for Zero means that your community is committing to a racially equitable end to homelessness. And so, it’s an important part of the coaching. We’re working with some really outstanding organizations nationally who’ve been at the forefront of bringing racial equity lenses into different areas of human service. So, this is a vital part of the work. And as I mentioned earlier, when you look at the disproportionality of people of color, particularly Black and Native Americans suffering this problem, this is a very powerful and actionable way for the country to move on a vision of racial equity.

This is a solvable problem. Our community is stepping up, or if it isn’t, it’s a big issue, and we’re going to make this the business of our mayor or county executive to see that we are solving this problem.

Denver: I think it’s been one of the great failures of this sector – that we’ve never disaggregated the results of past efforts. And we think we get a good number… and we tout it, but when we look a little bit deeper, you realize that certain people were completely left out of the equation.

Finally, Rosanne. What do you hope that the American people, the public will be saying about homelessness five years from today? 

Rosanne: This is a solvable problem. Our community is stepping up, or if it isn’t, it’s a big issue, and we’re going to make this the business of our mayor or county executive to see that we are solving this problem.

I think, Denver, the idea that we have been sort of lulled into thinking that this is normal– this is inescapable– is really the thing we have to crack. And one of the reasons we’re so grateful to MacArthur, they’re acknowledging that this is a solvable problem is such a powerful message that challenges this false belief that we must always have this problem, or that there is some explanation that’s beyond our control. 

So, in five years, we aim to be in a very different place where this is just completely and widely understood as a problem that we should not tolerate. And that it’s on us, our communities to solve the problem. It’s not acceptable any longer to walk away and believe that it’s something that people brought upon themselves… or our housing markets make it impossible. We will be in a different place. 

Denver: Well, that’s half the problem – believing you can do it. If not half, at least some percentage is that believing we can get this done. Now, if people want to follow along over the next five years and hopefully beyond the progress that you’re making, tell us a little bit where they can do that

Rosanne: Our website is constantly updated. There’s a lot of information there. And so that’s

Denver: Well, I want to thank you, Rosanne. I want to congratulate you again… to you and your entire team. And all the best in this life-changing work– to you and the communities that you serve. 

Rosanne: Denver, thank you. And thank you for following our work over many years. You’ve been such a passionate believer in the solvability of homelessness.  And let’s get together in five years.

Denver: Well, maybe even sooner.  Thanks so much. 

Rosanne: Great. Thank you, Denver.

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