Thomas Shomaker, Sean Ryon

Can This Data-Driven Organization Help Those Most Desperate Escape Life on the Streets?

Combine an entrepreneurial way of thinking with technology-based solutions and communities nationwide could end chronic homelessness.

Rosanne Haggerty grew up going to church in downtown Hartford, Conn. Her parents, both schoolteachers, never outright explained why they took their kids to church in a poor neighborhood full of single-room occupancy hotels and boarding houses. Haggerty, however, learned the lesson her folks were trying to instill. “My parents were both very devout Catholics in the social justice wing of the church,” Haggerty says, describing how the family visited fellow church members when they were sick and invited them over for holiday meals. Haggerty grew up with a sense that “we all can be doing more to provide that kind of support system for others.”

Today, Haggerty is a social change agent in her community, serving as the president of Community Solutions, a national organization that aims to end homelessness. Taking an entrepreneurial approach to address the problem, Community Solutions uses technology to capture data and tailor interventions to meet the needs of a region in the most effective way possible. At its heart, Community Solutions’s mission is the same as Haggerty’s parents’: helping people, one person at a time.

Community Solutions works in neighborhoods around the country to provide practical, data-driven solutions to the complicated problems involved in homelessness. The organization has already achieved great success: its 100,000 Homes campaign, which ran from 2010 to 2014, helped 186 participating communities house more than 105,000 homeless Americans across the country.” (Chronically homeless individuals make up 15 percent of the total homeless population, yet they utilize the majority of social services devoted towards helping them, including drop-in shelters.) To do this, it challenged the traditional approach of ending homelessness: requiring those living on the streets to demonstrate sobriety, steady income or mental health treatment, for example. Instead, it housed people first, an approach that has demonstrated overwhelming success: research finds that more than 85 percent of chronically homeless people housed through “Housing First” programs are still in homes two years later and unlikely to become homeless again.

“Technology played a critical role in the success of the 100,000 Homes campaign because it enabled multiple agencies to share and use the same data,” says Erin Connor, portfolio manager with the Cisco Foundation, which has supported Community Solutions’ technology-based initiatives. “By rigorously tracking, reporting and making decisions based on shared data, participating communities could track and monitor their progress against targets and contribute to achieving the collective goal.” As a result of this campaign, the estimated taxpayer savings was an astonishing $1.3 billion. Building on this achievement, its current Zero 2016 campaign works in 75 communities to sustainably end chronic and veteran homelessness altogether.

Technology and data gathering is critical for local and nationwide campaigns since homelessness is intimately connected to other social problems, like unemployment and poverty. One example of the local impact Community Solutions has had is in Brownsville (a neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., that’s dominated by multiple public housing projects) via the Brownsville Partnership, which is demonstrating that these problems can be solved — to create “the endgame of homelessness,” as Haggerty puts it.

In Brownsville, the official unemployment rate is 16 percent, “about double that of Brooklyn” as a whole, Haggerty says, noting that the statistic excludes those not currently looking for work. In response, the organization works with existing job training programs, digging into their data and analyzing it to improve effectiveness and achieve success.

“Data is at the heart of everything we do, as far as understanding where to focus our efforts and how to improve our collective performance,” Haggerty explains. Analyzing usage data, Community Solutions works with health care providers, nonprofits, and city and state governments to figure out where the most vulnerable populations live, what systems they interact with and what help they need.

Because of this emphasis on data, Community Solutions increasingly thinks of itself as a tech company, Haggerty says. Since 2010, it’s partnered with Cisco to help bring practical, data-driven solutions to communities around the country, opening doors to innovation and progress. When the collaboration began, Community Solutions was a local New York City-based organization. Today, it works with communities throughout the United States. By looking at the problem more nationally and taking an entrepreneurial approach when it comes to applying technology, Community Solutions is now solving homelessness on a much larger scale and having greater impact — producing real social change.

One person benefitting from this tech-driven approach is Toni Diaz. In and out of homeless shelters since the age of 17, Diaz had three children and a fourth on the way by the time she was 23 years old. Escaping from an abusive partner, Diaz took her kids to a homeless shelter. “I didn’t have anywhere to go,” she says. Right when Diaz realized that she needed to make a change in her life, opportunity arrived in the form of a caseworker from the Brownsville Partnership.

Diaz’s journey out of homelessness took years, but Brownsville Partnership walked with her every step of the way. Today, she’s part of an innovative solution that helps people like her connect to the services and training programs that will help them break that same cycle. Stories like Diaz’s are one of the things Haggerty loves most about her work. “It’s especially satisfying when people we initially encountered in a time of crisis end up in a position where they are paying it forward,” she says. Diaz, Haggerty says, shows “what kind of resilience exists in people in this neighborhood” and communities like Brownsville around the country.

This was produced in partnership with Cisco, which believes everyone has the potential to become a global problem solver – to innovate as a technologist, think as an entrepreneur, and act as a social change agent.

Editors’ note: The original version of this story misspelled Rosanne Haggerty’s name. It also erroneously stated that Community Solutions’s 100,000 Homes campaign housed more than 105,000 chronically homeless people in 186 communities across the country. NationSwell apologizes for these errors.