The handsome beaux arts fa‡ade of Prince George Hotel in
midtown Manhattan leads to a spacious lobby, with a piano and a few
well-upholstered chairs. It is modelled on an English hunting
lodge: oak-clad walls, an elaborate ceiling supported by large oak
columns topped with gold leaf, and an ornate floor-to-ceiling
It sounds like a haven for middle-income tourists. But the Prince
George – and the Times Square hotel nearby with its white marble
lobby and staircase – are owned by Common Ground, a not-for-profit
It works with the city’s homeless and low-income groups to provide
permanent, rented accommodation, with job counselling and health
and social services on site. Common Ground is now the US’s biggest
provider of supported accommodation, managing 1,600 units and with
another 600 under development.
The Prince George was last used as a hotel in 1904, and Times
Square in 1922. Little more than 10 years ago they were
overcrowded, unhygienic and often dangerous bed and breakfast
shelters for homeless people, of whom there are about 44,000 in New
York, with 1,800 rough sleepers estimated to be in Manhattan.
Half the residents in Common Ground properties used to be homeless,
the other half are low-income workers. Whether receiving welfare or
salary cheques, residents spend one-third of their income on rent.
At Times Square a resident may not earn more than $30,000 a year,
but the average income for both groups is $20,000 and the average
monthly rent is $650. Accommodation for the 1,600 residents in both
properties consists of simple, attractive, airy studio
Workers tend to reflect the areas in which the hotels stand: office
workers, catering staff, hospital auxiliary staff, actors and
musicians (Times Square, appropriately, has a rehearsal
Common Ground was the inspiration of Roseanne Haggerty, founder and
president, who launched the Times Square project in 1991 within a
year of conceiving the idea when working for Catholic Charities,
one of the country’s largest voluntary bodies.
“I’d worked with poor people,” she says, “and I thought, ‘what
about a scheme that would offer attractive accommodation to a wider
range of people so that you’d make a more mixed community, with
different incomes and social status?’ People would live together,
get to know one another, mix with other people whom they’d not
Haggerty was also motivated by the fact that homeless people are
disproportionate users of services: they are more likely to have a
physical disability, a mental health problem or to have been in
Her conception and the squalid, decaying and bankrupt state of
Times Square coincided: she raised money to buy it through tax
refunds, charitable foundations and private investors.
The city’s departments responsible for health, mental illness,
homeless people and HIV/Aids contract the Center for Urban
Community Services (CUCS) to provide social services to those
living in supported accommodation. The housing department pays
Common Ground a subsidy, together with some federal funding, to
bridge the gap between its costs and what it gets in rent. And it
does give value for money: while a shelter space costs the public
purse $23,000 a year and a state psychiatric bed $250,000, a home
with Common Ground is $11,400 a year.
All properties offer social services and there are specialists in
substance abuse and HIV/Aids. Times Square also has a part-time
nurse and a psychologist. Therapeutic activity specialists help
residents’ social and educational activity. Other health care
services – hospitals and GPs – are in the community because the aim
is to help residents to rejoin the community. This means making use
of health services as much as any other service so that their lives
do not depend on where they live.
Social worker Annette Ruperto recounts the tale of an alcoholic in
his early forties who relapsed four times in six months. In a
conventional tenancy he would have been evicted; here, CUCS could
work with him. He stopped drinking and remains a tenant.
Other services include six-week courses on budgeting, credit, money
management and running a bank account. Both hotels have a gym, a
dark room and a computer lab. At Times Square, there are regular
art shows (Common Ground employs a curator) where neighbours can
also exhibit, which earn income for the residents.
Haggerty says Common Ground has proven that “we can’t build our way
out of homelessness”. It is also about making use of existing
properties. That the agency’s many awards include those for
architecture and presentation proves the point.
Common Ground is involved with local communities, working with
organisations including community boards, precinct councils and
local business groups. Some residents sit on boards and
The charity rents space to ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s,
coffee chain Starbucks and various delicatessens; in return they
employ Common Ground residents.
CUCS has its own job-finding career network. Common Ground also
recruits from within: about one-third of its 180 staff used to be
“We have a strong philosophy,” says Haggerty, “about giving people
back their self-respect and, if possible, getting them back into
work. But we have pulled back from doing employment work directly
except to recruit to the organisation.”
And this philosophy is evident in the fact that a certain number of
apartments in all Common Ground’s new properties will be set aside
for residents who are looking for work. In the organisation’s new
Christopher’s accommodation in New York, 20 of the 207 apartments
will be reserved for just this purpose.
Common Ground has done more than simply reduce the homeless
population of New York and make affordable homes available to
low-paid workers: it has also married imagination and creativity
with social change.
The Art of Survival
Edward Harkewicz is a tall, quietly spoken, slightly stooped man
who lived in Brooklyn for 13 years before becoming homeless. Since
his early twenties he has also suffered from depression. He was
diagnosed as having both a borderline personality disorder and
bipolar disorder. He had an alcohol problem but has abstained for
22 years. His illness forced him to retire as a psychological
researcher on disability benefits when he was 40.
At Common Ground he has taken up art and writing. Now aged 58,
he still attends hospital for group and individual psychotherapy
and it was through the hospital’s psychiatric programme that he
came to Times Square in October 2000.
He says: “When I was working I had my own apartment and lived a
functional life. Being here has allowed me to be independent so far
as housing goes. It’s also made me not get in the depressive state
I would otherwise have been in. It’s a community here, which is
important to me. It allows people to work together and help others
and understand each other’s problems, and also have support in time
of a crisis.
“I understand my limitations better. I don’t stress myself. I
know that I can never drink again because that sets off demons that
make me manic and depressed. I realise that I have to be on
psychotropic medication for my brain to function properly and I
have seen now that I have developed talents – writing and painting
– which I never gave myself credit for. I thought I’d be a
university professor but it didn’t happen because, well, it just
didn’t happen. That doesn’t worry me now.”