Fewer homeless people living on streets in Orleans, Jefferson _lowres

Photo provided by UNITY of Greater New Orleans -- Barry Knox, right, has been homeless since 2009 before receiving housing in December. Knox talks with his caseworker Jueron Cormick of Alternatives Living Inc.

Barry Knox returned to New Orleans from Houston in 2009 to a life much different from the one he had known before Hurricane Katrina. With his 9th Ward neighborhood in shambles, the former maritime worker found himself living under the elevated section of North Claiborne Avenue.

He struggled with mounting health issues and eventually slipped into a severe depression.

But on Thursday, as he prepared to show off the tidy France Street apartment he has called home since December, Knox said his depression has subsided and he is beginning to feel well again. He thanked a cast of players, including case managers who worked to find him a place to live.

“It was so wonderful for UNITY and other organizations to help me out and fix me into a home more comfortable than being out underneath the bridge,” Knox said.

Knox is one of hundreds of homeless people who were removed from the streets in the past year as homelessness fell by 15 percent in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, according to data released Thursday by UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit coalition of 60 agencies working to end homelessness in the two parishes.

“We have reached a milestone today,” said Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY. “For the first time since Katrina, the number of people in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish who are suffering in homelessness is actually lower than it was before Katrina.”

Kegel made the announcement outside Knox’s France Street apartment.

UNITY found that on a typical recent night, 1,981 people were living in temporary shelters, on the streets and in abandoned buildings in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. That’s down from the 2,337 people estimated to be homeless last year.

The results are included in UNITY’s Point in Time survey, a federally mandated count of the city’s homeless population on one night each year. This year’s survey was conducted March 31.

The homeless population in the two parishes spiked to a high of 11,619 in 2007, as people struggled to rebuild their lives after Katrina.

“When Katrina hit, all of us were homeless, but some people were homeless for a very long time and even remain so today,” Kegel said. Rising rents, the loss of family infrastructure and damage to affordable housing have helped make the problem persist, she said. “We saw an increase almost immediately to almost five times the rate of homelessness” before the hurricane, she said.

The data released Thursday show that the current homeless population is about 3 percent lower than it was before the storm in 2005.

The survey also found that the number of homeless families and children in Orleans and Jefferson parishes fell by 17 percent and 38 percent, respectively, in the past year. The number of homeless veterans plummeted by 43 percent.

Additionally, the number of chronically homeless people, or those with severe mental and physical disabilities living long-term on the street or in shelters, fell by 30 percent in the past year, to 472 as of March 31. The chronically homeless represent almost a quarter of the city’s total homeless population.

“We have had the highest rate of chronic homelessness in the country,” Kegel said.

“We’re prioritizing the sickest of the sick — the people who literally are dying on the street and who will die if we don’t give them help.”

The federal government has set 2015 as the target date for ending chronic homelessness nationwide.

Jerry Buster was included in the chronically homeless count until Thursday. Buster, who has taken shelter beneath the Calliope Street overpass and at the New Orleans Mission for nearly three years, not only received keys to his own apartment on Thursday; he also gained the ability to begin treatment for leukemia.

Though he was diagnosed with the disease in 2010, his doctors wouldn’t perform a bone marrow transplant unless he had clean, dependable housing to return to after the surgery and the chemotherapy sessions that would follow it.

“It’s been a long wait,” Buster said shortly before receiving the keys to his new place. “As soon as this interview is over, I’m going to call them and tell them that I have the housing and we can start proceeding with the transplant.”

Despite the overall progress in reducing homelessness, one segment of the homeless population is spiking. Last year, there were 290 homeless young adults, ages 18 to 24, in Orleans and Jefferson. That’s up 21 percent from 2013. More than half of them, 57 percent, lived in some short of shelter like Covenant House New Orleans.

Covenant House provides food, shelter, clothing, medical attention and other services for homeless, runaway and at-risk youths under age 22.

At Covenant House, the average daily number of young people at the facility has grown from 45 a night three years ago to 137 on Wednesday night, Executive Director Jim Kelly said.

Kelly said he expects that number to climb to 150 in the next few months.