Darren Dalpiaz has trouble remembering things. It’s a side effect, the 48-year-old veteran said, from a severe head injury he suffered while serving in the Army. Combined with his social anxiety disorder, the disability makes it hard for him to hold down a job or even to make it to appointments.
Like many other veterans, Dalpiaz had been homeless for the past 10 years, wandering the streets in New Orleans and beyond and struggling just to survive. But on Friday, he was one of 11 chronically homeless veterans who moved into what’s being called his “forever home,” in the old Sacred Heart convent and school in Mid-City.
“It’s so wonderful,” Dalpiaz said with misty eyes, sitting on his new couch in his brand-new apartment Friday afternoon. “Until this moment, I didn’t think this was going to happen. It’s the best Christmas ever, because I’ve got a home for Christmas.”
Dalpiaz’s holiday present came courtesy of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, which teamed with Catholic Charities and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to move some of the city’s most vulnerable homeless veterans into a new apartment complex at 3222 Canal St.
The Sacred Heart Apartments, in a building that served most recently as a nursing home, will eventually house a mix of veterans with disabilities, formerly homeless people and tenants with incomes of no more than 50 percent of the area median level.
The units will include efficiencies, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments. Eventually, the building also will have a sunroom, a computer lab, a courtyard area and an on-site parking lot.
On Friday, however, Sheetrock dust could still be seen in the hallways, and most sections were closed off with temporary walls. That’s because, so far, the organizations have an occupancy permit for only a third of the project, which eventually is slated to hold 109 newly renovated apartments.
Despite the mess, the first 11 tenants could be seen moving in their belongings, lugging whatever items they had in large garbage bags or suitcases. Eventually, 55 apartments will be available for homeless people with disabilities, including disabled veterans.
“This is such an emergency in terms of homeless veterans that we didn’t want to waste even a moment getting (the 11) in,” said Martha Kegel, director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, as she held the door open for one of the new tenants. “We got them in as soon as we had our permit of occupancy.”
The veterans who moved in Friday had been living on the streets an average of 10 years each, Kegel added, and all had been homeless for at least a year. To find them, UNITY members had scoured the streets and local shelters, conducting interviews and keeping tabs on veterans they thought were most at-risk.
Some, like Dalpiaz, would disappear for long periods of time, and others had immediate needs for things like medication.
“They all have mental or physical disabilities and sometimes both,” Kegel said. “Sometimes it’s related to (military) service and sometimes not.”
Because homelessness is so often linked to mental or physical disability, residents like Dalpiaz will get on-site case managers who will assist them with things like medical appointments and, when appropriate, help them reconnect with their families, Kegel said.
Dalpiaz said he hopes his caseworker will help him relearn basic skills, such as how to live inside again.
“We’ll give them whatever they need to be stable and improve their health, with the goal being that they will never be homeless again,” Kegel said. “This is their forever home.”
Saving historic property
The project, which is part of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s campaign to end homelessness in New Orleans, is serving two other needs for Mid-City, according to Jeanne Reaux-Connor, director of housing development for UNITY.
First, she said, the area desperately needs affordable housing, and second, the project is saving an important old neighborhood building.
Built in 1908 as the Sacred Heart convent and school, the 87,505-square-foot property was turned into a nursing home in 1998, but it was badly damaged during Hurricane Katrina.
“We need this housing for the homeless, and the building ... is not in great shape,” Reaux-Connor said when she announced the project at a Mid-City Neighborhood Organization in November. “It needs rehabbing.”
By Friday, several apartments had been fully renovated. At least one boasted a spacious living room with two large windows, a separate bedroom and a small kitchen.
Turquoise paint covered Dalpiaz’s front door, and already a miniature snowman served as decoration.
“These apartments are ones that anyone would be proud to live in,” Kegel said, noting that the tenants will be close to the new Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “And it’s right on the main thoroughfare of New Orleans, Canal Street, right next to the streetcar.”
Fifty-four of the 109 units will be for people who aren’t homeless but can’t afford to buy homes or even to rent good housing in the area.
“They are for people making modest wages who are the backbone of the economy,” Kegel said. “They’re the teachers, maids, janitors, sales clerks, waiters and other people who support the functions of the medical and tourism industries. They’re the people we completely rely on to make society work but who can’t afford today’s high rents.”
According to the real estate company Trulia.com, the average listing price for homes in Mid-City for the week ending Dec. 17 was $390,174. The average home in New Orleans cost $308,980 during the same week.
According to the latest census data, the median household income in Orleans Parish between 2008 and 2012 was $36,681 a year.
“If you have market rates that nobody can afford, then you run the risk of increasing homelessness,” Reaux-Connor said.
The disabled and homeless won’t be asked to pay as much as the other 54 tenants. They are, however, expected to pay what they can. One-third of any income they receive from jobs or veterans disability benefits, for example, will go to rent, Kegel said.
Opening of the Sacred Heart Apartments is part of a larger success story, according to officials with UNITY. This year, the organization reached a significant milestone: helping bring homelessness down to pre-Katrina levels.
Since 2007, UNITY and its 60 member agencies have helped reduce homelessness by 83 percent. And this year alone, UNITY has housed 184 homeless people, including the 11 who moved into the Sacred Heart Apartments on Friday.
In 2012, the same organization celebrated the opening of a 60-unit complex in the Rosa F. Keller Building on Tulane Avenue. Like the Sacred Heart Apartments, the building offers on-site caseworkers to about half of its tenants, who used to be homeless.
Evidence shows the hands-on approach works, according to UNITY: All of the previously homeless tenants, even those with challenging disabilities, have remained stably housed since the building opened two years ago.
A long way to go
Other numbers, however, show that organizations like UNITY have a long way to go before eradicating homelessness in New Orleans altogether. According to the latest count, 1,981 people remained homeless in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.
Billy Holmes, another formerly homeless veteran who moved into the Sacred Heart Apartments on Friday, said he won’t be able to rest until he sees housing for the friends he made living under the bridges downtown.
“It’s not going to be complete for me until I don’t have to worry about them anymore, until they have shelter,” said Holmes, a 46-year-old veteran who joined the Navy in 1987 and has been homeless on and off for the past 10 years. “We’ve been through it, leaning on each other, helping each other. I just can’t completely rest my mind.”
Holmes pledged to continue working to educate people about the problem of homelessness in the city.
Dalpiaz, in the meantime, said he has more modest goals. First, he plans to get a little dog, to help with his anxiety. Then, he wants to reconnect with his daughter and to hold his grandchildren for the first time.
“She started crying,” he said about his daughter, whom he called early Friday morning to tell her he was no longer homeless. “And now she and my grandbabies can come and see me.”