From 2003-2007, Becky Kanis led the successful effort that reduced street homelessness in Times Square by 87%. Now, she's taking what she learned to communities across the country as Director of our 100,000 Homes Campaign. In a candid Q+A, she opens up about her values, her military background, and the reason she's passionate about ending homelessness.
Q. What is the 100,000 Homes Campaign?
A. The 100,000 Homes Campaign is a national movement of communities working together to find permanent homes for 100,000 of the most vulnerable homeless Americans by July of 2013. So far, more than 100 communities have joined the Campaign, and they’ve permanently housed close to 11,000 people. It’s a hugely inspiring effort, and I think it’s fundamentally altering the way our country responds to homelessness.
Q. What got you interested in doing something like that?
A. Rosanne Haggerty (President of Community Solutions) hired me in 2003 to reduce street homelessness by two-thirds in three years in Times Square – the neighborhood with the highest density of street homelessness in NYC at the time. Through a series of trial and error efforts, we discovered that people who had been living on the streets for long periods of time genuinely wanted housing (even though they may not have wanted to go to a shelter), and that by methodically targeting our outreach efforts and housing vacancies to the people who had been on the streets the longest, we were able to achieve a tipping point. By 2007, street homelessness was down by 87% and with coaching from the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, we started sharing our outreach techniques with other communities.
What surprised me — actually, what blew me away — was how communities were taking our tools and adapting them in new ways and achieving stunning results that built on what we had done in Times Square. I remember the moment when Rosanne and I first heard about the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s wildly successful 100,000 Lives Campaign that helped over 3,000 hospitals adopt quality improvements that reduced accidental deaths by 100,000 in 18 months. The two of us exchanged a nod from across the room as if to say, “We could do this with homelessness, too.” We asked IHI to coach us on large-scale change and adapt the strategies and techniques from the 100,000 Lives Campaign to create the 100,000 Homes Campaign.
What truly excites me and continues to fuel my interest in this work is the energy I feel when I have a genuine, authentic connection with someone who is working to change his or her community’s willingness and ability to house people who have otherwise been given up on. There’s a feeling of solidarity among change agents who are drawn to the Campaign — it’s almost tribal. We’re all fueled by the same dissatisfaction with the status quo that led Rosanne to hire me back in 2003. It really pumps me up and keeps me going.
Q. What did you do before joining the Community Solutions team?
A. My background is in the military. I graduated from West Point in 1991 and spent nine years as an officer in the U.S. Army. It was a tremendously rewarding experience, and it taught me a lot about leadership and creative problem solving. The Army doesn’t allow you to accept defeat, especially when there’s something truly important at stake. Maybe that’s where my determination to end homelessness comes from— I really see this as a fight we can and must win as a society.
Q. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned in the course of your job?
A. Even after all that time in the Army, I don’t think I really understood the power of collaboration until I started doing this work. We talk a lot at Community Solutions about collective impact—the idea that no one sector can solve complex social problems alone. We’ve seen firsthand that no single group has the silver bullet, but when you build smart collaborations between the public, private and non-profit sectors, you can really move the ball forward. It’s impossible to overstate the significance of teamwork. I even ran the numbers recently for the Stanford Social Innovation Review and found that local Campaign teams with members from multiple sectors are ending homelessness in their communities faster than their peers. The power of teamwork — of bringing people together that might not otherwise have met or collaborated, and giving them simple and powerful tools to achieve shared goals — is tremendous. I really think that’s the thing that’s going to end homelessness in our country.