INTERVIEW: Why SpareRoom and Breaking Ground partnered to combat NYC’s homelessness crisis

November 28, 2017

Over the past few years, New York City’s homeless crisis has gotten worse. A recent study reported a 39 percent increase in homelessness over 2016, making last year the highest homeless population since the survey began in 2005. While the city scrambles to address the rising population, a roommate company and nonprofit housing organization recently teamed up to help lessen the burden of New Yorkers who find themselves unable to afford housing.

Despite operating on opposite ends of the housing market, roommate matching site SpareRoom partnered with Breaking Ground, the largest provider of supportive housing in NYC, this November. The partnership was suggested by the public after SpareRoom launched Live Rent Free, a contest where the company pays one roommate’s monthly rent and one person’s entire rent for a whole year. (It was inspired by founder Rupert Hunt’s New York roommate search, in which he found two roomies to share his West Village loft for $1 a month.) The resulting partnership–which is running in tandem with the Live Rent Free contest–matches the monthly prize amount dollar-for-dollar with an in-kind donation to Breaking Ground to fund their Transitional Housing program. So far, SpareRoom has donated $3,314.

With 6sqft, Matt Hutchinson, Director at SpareRoom, explained why the company felt motivated to address homelessness and its future plans to engage with Breaking Ground. Brenda Rosen, President and CEO of Breaking Ground, also explains how the organization’s Transition Housing program works, and why the homelessness crisis is something all New Yorkers–regardless of what they pay in rent–should be aware of.

spareroom, live rent free, live rent free contest Live Rent Free contest winner in Manhattan, courtesy SpareRoom

Matt, tell us about the responses you were hearing to the LiveRentFree contest in regards to homelessness.

Matt: When we announced Live Rent Free with a competition to win a year’s rent we got a positive response. But people also started commenting on our social channels asking if we could also do something to help the homeless too. It became clear it’s something people feel really strongly about so we wanted to do something.

So why did the company decide it was important to address the rise in homelessness in New York?

Matt: We strongly believe that home is the single most important thing in our lives. If you don’t have a happy, stable, comfortable and affordable place to live it can affect everything else. We know from 13 years of running a roommate site that finding a place to rent can be stressful, so not having a home at all must be devastating. SpareRoom exists to help people find happier apartment shares quickly and safely. If we can also do something to help the wider community at the same time then great.

So what’s next for this partnership? Will SpareRoom offer opportunities for users to get involved or contribute to this initiative?

We felt it was important for us to put our money where our mouth is before asking anyone else to put their hands in their pockets. People can feel good using SpareRoom, knowing that they’re doing something to help. But we’re also keen to look at ways we can engage our users to get involved too, whether that’s donating money themselves, volunteering to help Breaking Ground with their work or just helping spread the word.

homelessness, breaking ground, breaking ground nycPhoto courtesy Breaking Ground

Brenda, tell us a little about Breaking Ground’s “Housing First” philosophy.

Brenda: Breaking Ground was an early pioneer of the Housing First model, which means that there are no requirements for someone to move into our housing, such as sobriety or being on medication. Housing First is something we believe in strongly and we see the success of the model every day. Asking someone to get sober while living on the streets, and only then can they come inside, is a recipe for failure. It doesn’t work. You have to start with the foundation of a safe, stable, affordable home, and then wrap support services around people in order to begin to address the issues that were contributing to homelessness in the first place. It’s a process that works.

The key for us is Housing First, but not housing only. Our transitional housing provides wraparound supportive services designed to help people overcome the trauma of homelessness and move on to stable, permanent housing for the long-term.

Our supportive housing model is a proven, permanent solution to homelessness – typically, more than 98 percent of people who enter our permanent supportive housing remain housed. And in our buildings that have been open for at least 10 years, the average length of tenancy among formerly homeless residents is more than 9 years. That’s a remarkable record of stability for people who had spent years, sometimes decades, on the streets.

What’s the role of the transitional housing program? Where will the extra money from SpareRoom go within the program?

Brenda: The funds from our SpareRoom partnership will go towards our Safe Haven transitional housing programs. Transitional housing is an important step in the journey towards permanent housing. For individuals not yet ready to transition into permanent housing, as well as those who may have struggled in other housing programs, Safe Havens offer an alternative to life on the street: private, safe, clean, and affordable short-term accommodations. On-site case management and clinical services are available to meet the needs of residents, providing critical services and guiding them on the path to a permanent housing solution.

Each year, we raise nearly $1.5 million in private dollars to help cover the costs of transitional housing. SpareRoom’s monthly match donation will help cover supportive services like case management, psychiatric and primary medical care, and other services designed to help our residents stabilize as we work with them to find permanent housing.

breaking ground, spare room, homelessness, homelessness nycBreaking Ground’s street outreach team, courtesy Breaking Ground

Why is it important for all New Yorkers–regardless of how much rent they pay–to pay attention to New York’s homeless crisis? It’s a crisis that affects us as a city, but sometimes it’s not viewed as such.

Brenda: If you care about the well-being of both individuals and your community, homelessness is an extremely important human services concern for all New Yorkers. Homelessness is a terrible condition for anyone to be in and no community that considers itself modern can be a truly healthy place in which to live, raise a family, or do business over the long run if it cannot care for residents who are unable to sustain housing. This issue is, thus, about compassion, advancing humanity and promoting community and is of utmost relevance for New York City at present.

Our street outreach teams work every day of the year, 24/7, to build relationships with people experiencing homelessness on the streets, help them to come inside, and get them on the path to permanent stable housing. It’s a process that takes time. Often, the street homeless are suffering from mental illness, substance use disorder, or other issues that present barriers to coming indoors, and we work with them every day to overcome these challenges. Our outreach teams have great relationships with local communities who alert them when they see someone who needs help.

We need New Yorkers’s support for the permanent solution to homelessness: building more affordable and supportive housing. Once someone is housed, their lives begin to change. They are motivated to get the help they need to reenter society, volunteer, get a job, and have the support of social service and medical experts to keep them safe, housed, and permanently off the streets.

What was the conversation like when SpareRoom and Breaking Ground started talking about partnering together?

Brenda: We were so excited when SpareRoom reached out to us. When we heard the story – that they had asked their community, listened, and responded when they heard people wanted to do something about homelessness – we knew they would be a natural partner. Because that’s exactly what we seek to do – to ask people experiencing homelessness what they need, listen, and try to match the right resources to meet those needs.

Crucially, SpareRoom shares our belief that everyone deserves a home, and these funds will directly benefit our work to address homelessness. At a time when support for affordable housing is under such evident threat by proposed federal tax policy, support from philanthropic partners is more important than ever.

Matt: It felt like a natural fit straight off. Although we work in very different areas of the housing market, SpareRoom and Breaking Ground share a fundamental belief in how important home is to people. Knowing that made it incredibly easy for us to move things to the next stage and focus on what we could do to help.


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