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Home  > Article

Making a Difference

By Aviya Kushner

As a twentysomething, you'll learn a lot more in a small non-profit focused on a couple of issues than in a consulting firm where you might just end up filing....

New York City non-profit Common Ground takes a new approach to homelessness.

A grand piano isn't the first piece of furniture that comes to mind when you think of a homeless shelter, but a gleaming piano in the lobby of Common Ground's Times Square facility is just one example of how the New York City non-profit handles homelessness differently. For starters, Common Ground doesn't run shelters. It owns and operates "supportive housing" centers, which means that each resident gets not only a bed, a bathroom, and in most cases, a kitchenette, but also on-site social services, job-training assistance, and medical care. The flagship facility in New York's newly cleaned-up Times Square also boasts a gym, a library, and a rooftop deck with sweeping views of Manhattan.

While most homeless shelters are free, Common Ground tenants usually pay up to one-third of their income to live in supportive housing. Residents are screened on everything from credit and employment history to drug use, and once they are accepted, the staff makes every effort to help them find permanent housing. Everyone who works at Common Ground says the same thing--that what it offers is not a Band-Aid, but an all-out attempt at a permanent solution.

"Homelessness is something you can put your hands around," says Mara Blitzer, 25, project developer and co-director of the organization's Fellows Program, which gives recent college graduates a one-year introduction to non-profit work. "Homelessness is a phenomenally complicated issue. But ultimately, it's caused by a lack of affordable housing." What's more, Blitzer says, homelessness can be ended. "I am attracted to the issue because it seems to be solvable. In politics, the victories are few and far between. Here, every time we open a new building and someone puts down sheets, turns on a light, and has a home, that's a success for Common Ground."

Blitzer is quick to point out that this success comes with another bonus. Providing a person with supportive housing is actually cheaper than relegating him or her to one of the alternatives. In fact, according to Common Ground, supportive housing costs only $12,500 per person, per year, compared with $25,000 for a space in a shelter, $40,000 for a city jail cell, or $127,000 for a spot in a psychiatric hospital.

The committed twentysomethings who work for this organization believe that supportive housing is clearly the most effective solution. "Common Ground is thorough," says Jennifer Hawkins, 26, intake coordinator at the Times Square facility (she decides who gets an apartment and when). "First, we'll provide a safe place to live and then we'll help them keep it. We also have a job program and social services, so there's a holistic approach to solving problems here."

Common Ground has won outside admirers ranging from the producers of 60 Minutes, which did a segment on the organization, to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times, the next-door neighbor of the Times Square facility. The Times and the facility's other neighbors have reason to praise Common Ground's efforts: the "before" and "after" pictures of the Times Square facility--formerly the "Times Square Hotel"--are startling. Long one of the city's worst single-room-occupancy welfare hotels, it had been handed from landlord to landlord until it was truly unlivable.

"I've always been concerned with inequities of wealth in our society, especially in the last decade," says Development Associate Ben Metcalf, 23, who works in fund-raising and public relations. "I have become more and more conscious of the bottom fifth, and of the gross failure of a very wealthy country to help the poorest people. I feel like there are a lot of battles that I would like to be fighting, but this seems to be the most critical," he says.

Common Ground employees say they are not martyrs. Metcalf says he earns a "comfortable" salary. Like the others, he views social justice work as a lifestyle. It means more roommates, less glamorous digs, and a Christmas bonus of a subway pass. It also means work he loves and hours that allow time for a life. Starting salaries are in the high twenties, and people with experience and an advanced degree in anything from public policy to public health can earn far more.

Common Ground is at the high end of the non-profit salary spectrum; political organizations (like lobby groups), for example, offer far lower salaries. But one thing tends to be true--while entry-level corporate employees may do more filing than decision making, chronically understaffed and underfunded non-profits give younger people more responsibility.

Maureen Gainer, 24, says she's the perfect example of that. As the intake coordinator at the Prince George, another Common Ground facility, she interviews applicants to find residents who will benefit from the community and pay their rent. The Prince George mixes homeless people with working tenants who pay market-rate rents, so Gainer also has to find people who are open to having mentally ill and HIV-positive neighbors. That's a lot of responsibility for someone three years out of school. "I feel more focused than other people my age," she says. "And the difference in salary is not life-altering when you're just starting out."

Gainer says a non-profit is a great place for someone who's unsure about career direction because the jobs tend to have wide-ranging descriptions. "You get to see a lot of different things. You write grants, you lobby, and you see what you like and what you don't like. There's less office politics and more of a small, family-oriented atmosphere," Gainer says. "As a twentysomething, you'll learn a lot more in a small non-profit focused on a couple of issues than in a consulting firm where you might just end up filing."

Kara Montermoso, a Fellow in her first year out of school who lives at the Times Square facility (most of the program's Fellows live there), knew she wanted to work at a non-profit, but hadn't identified her cause. Common Ground has given her the opportunity "to learn about a problem from the inside out." Montermoso also found that she likes working on a major national problem, and that people are often curious about her work. That's true for others who work at Common Ground as well. "At a party, people really want to hear about what I do, and I get to share facts about homelessness," Blitzer says. "And I think that's kind of fun."

Aviya Kushner is a contributing poetry editor for She is always excited to write about people who love what they do.

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