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Using Human and Technology Networks to Tackle Homelessness

This post was written by Molly Tschang, customer solutions director with Cisco’s New York City public sector team

Ten to fifteen percent of America’s homeless population is chronically homeless. Yet they utilize more than 50 percent of public resources available to help the homeless. Housing people permanently reconnects them to society and amounts to annual savings of US$30,000 to US$40,000 per family in New York City, money that could potentially support other city services.

Community Solutions is a leading social enterprise, assessing the roots of homelessness and addressing them with long-term solutions. Partnering with Community Solutions, Cisco’s New York City public sector team is tapping a broad range of Cisco’s assets--human and technology--to help end homelessness. At the same time, they are achieving the business aim of better understanding their customers’ mission and having greater, more meaningful impact as a business partner.

This innovative partnership in the making takes advantage of the life experience of Cisco employees, their networking skill sets, and fundraising to accelerate the work of Community Solutions.

Founded by social entrepreneur Rosanne Haggerty more than 20 years ago, Community Solutions is a national nonprofit organization with a mission to strengthen communities to end homelessness. Based in New York City, Community Solutions is convening those already working on this problem, though not necessarily aware of each other. This human network of community leaders, public agencies, nonprofits, property developers, and health and human services organizations is creating practical, scalable, cost-effective solutions to homelessness. Community Solutions brings proven, replicable innovations that end homelessness to a national scale and advances new models of homelessness prevention and community development.

In order to craft the partnership, the Community Solutions and Cisco leaders openly discussed their respective needs. What resulted was an initial six-month “proof of concept” program (April to September 2012) whereby Cisco engages at multiple levels, both corporate and local, with the opportunity for other Cisco offices to explore partnering with Community Solutions in their communities.

The four areas of initial collaboration are:

* Youth Advisor Program. Cisco employees are sharing their life experiences as mentors to disadvantaged youth from Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of New York City’s most challenged communities.  Brownsville, with 90,000 residents, is one of the poorest zip codes in the United States and has one of the largest concentrations of public housing in New York with one-third of residents living in public housing. Disadvantaged youth in this area lack positive role models, exposure to career opportunities, and a greater sense of possibility about their future. The Cisco advisors are acting as a positive life influence for the youths, helping them set academic and personal goals and exposing them to a world beyond Brownsville. The ten “scholars” met their 14 “advisors” in early April at the Cisco offices. A job skills event followed in late June, and a final presentation of the scholars’ technology-oriented projects is planned for September. At that point Community Solutions and Cisco will review the experience and decide on next steps for the Youth Advisor Program.

* Community Solutions Technology Audit. The Cisco New York City public sector team will apply its networking expertise to help Community Solutions more effectively use collaboration technologies to advance its work, much like the team would work with a customer.

* Employee Fundraising. The local Cisco team has initiated a 2012 funding campaign to accelerate Community Solutions’ work, also involving Cisco corporate national support. In this “$50K Challenge Grant,” up to US$25,000 raised by employees will be matched by Corporate NY/NJ Civic Council support. The impact US$50,000 will have on Community Solutions is considerable: In the Intensive Family Support and Homelessness Prevention Program of the Brownsville Partnership, an average cost of $370 per family living in NYCHA housing spares a family the trauma of homelessness. With an average annual cost of US$36,000 per homeless family, US$50,000 would spare taxpayers more than $12.6 million(1) in expenses over three years on avoided shelter and other system costs.

* Cisco Corporate Support. The Cisco Foundation and Employee Relations are supporting the “$100K Homes Campaign” through matching and local grants. One of the initiatives we’re supporting is “Housing Homeless Veterans Faster.”  Unfortunately, local processes can result in military veterans being homeless for long periods of time, even if they’ve secured a federal voucher for housing. Community Solutions has a “Boot Camp” that brings together all the stakeholders, who literally stand around a table for a full day, and eliminate duplicate requirements, consolidate redundant forms, throw out unnecessary steps, and put as much of the process online as possible. By day’s end, communities have mapped out a shared housing process that is, on average, 80 percent shorter than the one with which they began! A streamlined process like this in every community could break the local logjam and ensure that increased federal housing resources for veterans could be implemented quickly and efficiently. The average veteran’s length of homelessness would be reduced by nearly a full year!

The partnership between Community Solutions and Cisco is a clear example of Michael Porter and Michael R. Kramer’s concept of “Creating Shared Value”--recognizing the importance of reconnecting company success with social progress by creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. It is believed that companies that embrace this concept will drive the next wave of innovation and productivity growth in the global economy(2). Traditional philanthropy is often about time or money, and misses out on capturing the enormous value of the people in companies, such as Cisco. Community Solutions and Cisco are innovating to take greater advantage of what Cisco can offer--ultimately serving the interests of both communities and business, as healthy communities are a business interest.

Please join us in using human and technology networks to end homelessness. 

If you are a Cisco employee, you can contribute to the campaign online through Community Connection. Just enter “Common Ground” in the Search bar, and select Common Ground Communities, Inc. d/b/a Community Solutions, Inc.

If you are not a Cisco employee, you can donate directly to Community Solutions online at

1 By preventing evictions for 350 families over three years
Harvard Business Review, January 2011

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