Abbott Roland has been without a steady place to live since he returned to New Orleans from Katrina-imposed exile in Tennessee six years ago. Recently, he was squatting alone in a flood-damaged, abandoned house next to a vacant lot.
“It was like a nightmare, disgusting,” Roland said Thursday as he prepared to receive the keys to a new apartment in Central City. “It was something I never dreamed I would be going through.”
Roland is an example both of the progress that city officials and nonprofit groups have made in reducing homelessness in New Orleans and of the challenges that remain.
In absolute numbers, homelessness is down 85 percent from a peak reached just after Hurricane Katrina, but the per-capita homeless rate was actually higher in 2014 than before the storm, according to a report released Thursday by UNITY of Greater New Orleans.
For every 10,000 people in New Orleans, there are 46.9 homeless people, according to the UNITY report. That ratio is 14 percent higher than it was in January 2005.
The nonprofit group leads a collaborative of more than 60 agencies that provide housing and other services to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. Among other things, it takes an annual census of homeless people in the city, and it coordinates sweeps of abandoned buildings and other locations where the homeless take shelter.
Roland is moving into permanent housing just two months after first being discovered by a UNITY caseworker, who had been called to the Peniston Street house where he was living to check on a person reported to be in need of services.
Roland, who has a number of health issues, including a diagnosis of malnutrition, said he has been living off and on in that house and other locations for the past few years.
According to UNITY, the per-capita homeless rate in New Orleans is much higher than in other cities of comparable size and worse than in several larger cities, including Chicago and Baltimore.
In 2007, there were 11,619 homeless people living on the streets, in abandoned buildings or in temporary homeless shelters in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. That number has fallen to 1,703 on any given night in 2015, below the pre-Katrina estimate of 2,051.
“While it’s way down from where it was, it’s still something very shocking,” UNITY Executive Director Martha Kegel said. “We are very passionate and very determined to end that tragedy.”
The organization is calling for more permanent supportive housing, a small “no-barrier shelter” for mentally ill people and more public participation in the Rapid Response for Homeless Veterans initiative.
City leaders, local nonprofits and federal agencies announced in January that New Orleans had all but eliminated homelessness among military veterans.
The rate of homelessness among veterans in the city is now at “functional zero,” Kegel said. That means the city is in a position to find housing for a homeless veteran within 30 days of identifying him or her.
Kegel said UNITY and other organizations are hoping to use that effort as a model for eliminating homelessness overall in the New Orleans area.