True Stories

Profile of Common Ground’s new Executive Director Brenda Rosen

By | Aug 16, 2011

Brenda Rosen, Executive Director of Common Ground

Brenda Rosen was recently named Executive Director of Common Ground, the renowned, non-profit organization located in New York City that is celebrated both nationally and internationally for its success in the provision of supportive housing to homeless, disabled, elderly and low-income people.

While it is not unusual for the founder of an organization like Common Ground to have a compelling personal history that has manifested itself in a visionary direction, the executives who follow are often characterized by far more conventional backgrounds.

Rosen completely surprised us. A very polished and professional attorney by education and training, she has personally experienced the shock and hardship of homelessness.

Difficult Chapter

This difficult chapter of her life began unexpectedly when she was only ten years old. Rosen’s parents had just relocated her family from the Bronx area of New York City to a new apartment on Roosevelt Island, located adjacent to Manhattan in the East River.

Returning with her older brother from an afternoon of swimming at a neighborhood pool ten days after the move, they discovered their new apartment building consumed in flames. Their family’s residence and all of its contents were destroyed in the fire.

Rosen vividly recalls going in a wet swimsuit and flip-flops to the management office, located in another building in the apartment complex, to request permission to use the telephone in order to call her parents, who were both at work.

The first of many harsh realities precipitated by homelessness kicked in immediately; the management company refused to allow Rosen and her brother to use the office telephone, cruelly telling them that policy did not permit its use by tenants. In addition, when her parents returned and requested assistance from the management company, none was provided. They were all told to seek assistance from an organization like the Red Cross.

Like so many homeless people, Rosen’s family had no living relatives available to help. It was only due to intense advocacy by a group of neighbors, all still strangers, that the management company gave the family permission to seek shelter in a vacant apartment.

Given the unfortunate timing of the fire, Rosen’s parents lost most of their important papers and had not yet acquired new insurance. With no clothes, food, furniture or bedding, they moved into a vacant apartment in the complex and slept on the bare floor.

Neighbors and work colleagues brought clothes and furnishings to the family, some of it used, some paid for with cash raised in collections taken up in their behalf.  Rosen, who described her family as “working class,” said that although her parents “…got back on their feet,” it took her family “…a couple of years to get back to a normal situation.”

Life of Service

The experience of dealing with harsh and unresponsive authorities during this crisis impacted Rosen deeply. As she stated, “People shouldn’t be treated this way.”  By contrast, receiving kind and caring supportive services from neighbors, who were at that time strangers, taught her that “Strangers will go out of their way to help strangers.”

Rosen made up her mind to become a social worker but shifted her career direction towards public policy after completing an externship in an honors program while a student studying sociology and urban studies at Hunter College in New York City.

She’d been selected for the college’s Public Services Scholar Program. It was insight gained during her assignment to the New York City Council’s Committee on General Welfare that persuaded her she could have greater impact on policy as an attorney.

Rosen graduated from Benjamin Cardozzo Law School and accepted a position with the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) in New York City. She ran the Emergency Assistance Unit, which provides shelter to homeless families and adults. According to Rosen, “It was an operational position on the family side… I did not want to go into corporate law.”

After several years at DHS, Rosen was contacted in 1999 by Roseanne Haggerty, founder of Common Ground, and asked to become Director of the Prince George Hotel, Common Ground’s then newest supportive housing development.  Rosen has been with the organization ever since.

Common Ground is New York City’s largest developer of supportive housing and is an award-winning property manager.  While housing stability is often tenuous for the population it serves, Common Ground reports an astonishing 95% retention rate which the organization attributes to its provision of intensive supportive services individually tailored to each tenant. Less than 1% of tenants have been evicted; approximately 4% move on to private housing.

Common Ground’s housing costs approximately $36 per night to operate, significantly less than public expenditures of $54 per night for a city shelter bed, $74 for a state prison cell, $164 for a city jail cell, $467 for a psychiatric bed and $1,185 for a hospital bed.

With homelessness growing across our country in recent years, especially in our nation’s suburban and rural areas, it will be fascinating to learn what new initiatives Common Ground will launch under Brenda Rosen’s client-centered and humanitarian stewardship.

We anticipate that the organization will continue to exceed performance expectations as it brings even more disenfranchised homeless, disabled, elderly and low income people into safe, supportive housing environments where those who need it receive individualized assistance in rebuilding their lives.