NEW ORLEANS — Jessie Arbuthnot was one of the thousands who found himself without a place to live in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Duncan Plaza, a park across from New Orleans City Hall, became home for him and many others during that time.
“It was like a nightmare,” Arbuthnot said of that time in his life.
But now Arbuthnot is back in his own place, one of several thousand residents who have found their way off the streets since the 2005 storm.
The number of homeless people in Orleans and Jefferson parishes dropped 79 percent since 2007, UNITY of Greater New Orleans announced Wednesday, though that figure is still 18 percent higher than the pre-Katrina homeless population.
The homeless population surged to more than 11,000 following the August 2005 storm but has steadily dropped since then thanks to falling rents, more available housing and new funding to pay for housing, said Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a homelessness collaborative.
Interviews conducted on Orleans and Jefferson streets, as well as at homeless shelters and abandoned buildings, helped UNITY determine that 2,419 people were homeless one night last month. That represents a drop of more than half from last year, which saw 4,903 people homeless in the area.
The most recent figure, however, is higher than the pre-Katrina homeless population of 2,051.
“All of this is a direct reflection of Katrina,” Kegel said.
Kegel announced the new data during UNITY’s annual meeting at the Holy Angels Convent on St. Claude Avenue in the 9th Ward.
Another change in the local area is the number of people who live in permanent supportive housing, which includes services some people need. There were 706 people in permanent supportive housing in 2007, according to UNITY; there are 2,418 people in that type of housing today.
Kegel said UNITY will keep working to try to find permanent housing for 60 people a month in an effort to continue to chip away at the remaining homeless population.
Support from the public and private sectors, as well as the general public, should ensure the number of homeless people in the city continues to fall, she said.
“We’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Kegel said.
About six years in his own place and with a job doing various duties at Crystal Hot Sauce’s facility in Reserve, Arbuthnot said the relocation has meant a change for the better, something Kegel said is the goal any time her organization gets someone off of the streets.
“I feel different,” Arbuthnot said. “It’s a good life.”