Mayor Mitch Landrieu plans to announce on Wednesday that his administration, working with local nonprofits and federal agencies, has all but eliminated homelessness among military veterans in New Orleans.
The Mayor’s Office said Landrieu will be the first official to claim that accomplishment since first lady Michelle Obama challenged local and state leaders across the country to meet the same goal by the end of 2015. More than 80 officials signed on to the effort in June.
The local homelessness collaborative UNITY of Greater New Orleans counted 193 veterans living on the streets in Orleans and Jefferson parishes in March, among about 2,400 homeless individuals overall. By the end of 2014, that figure had been brought essentially to zero, according to the Mayor’s Office and local homeless advocates, meaning that any veteran who turns up homeless in either parish is now placed in at least temporary housing within 30 days, on average.
In interviews this week, people involved in the effort described an all-out push to get the various groups involved in combating homelessness to prioritize veterans and start coordinating closely to meet the first lady’s challenge by the end of 2014.
“We had to use the resources that we had, and we had to use them smarter and better then ever,” said Martha Kegel, UNITY’s executive director. “We had to figure out how to work together better.”
The effort involved overcoming big logistical headaches, Kegel said. Just finding the veterans in the first place proved difficult because they tend to move often from one place to the next. And the level of homelessness overall in New Orleans has come down sharply since the years immediately after Hurricane Katrina, when there was a huge increase. So those remaining on the streets were often the hardest cases. Groups of active-duty military personnel were enlisted to sweep the city on five different occasions.
Then a small army of counselors — known as “navigators” — from an array of organizations worked to enroll the homeless veterans in federal or local programs that could provide temporary housing, income or both, as the first steps toward finding a permanent place to stay or a job.
To overcome privacy rules that sometimes stood in the way of getting at the necessary records, Kegel said, her group even got the local Veterans Affairs office to designate several of her staff as uncompensated employees, so they could trade information more freely.
“The programs that are available for veterans are very complicated,” Kegel said. “There’s a very complicated regulatory scheme, so figuring out who was eligible for what was very difficult.”
Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said she was impressed with the effort in New Orleans. None of the tactics used here — street-level outreach, using active-duty military — was particularly novel, Roman said, but New Orleans has done an especially good job of coordinating the various groups and agencies involved.
“It’s all pulled together,” Roman said, “And the mayor really pushed hard.”
Some of the veterans the city’s efforts have touched seem pleased as well.
David Britz, who served as an Army cook for four years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, came to New Orleans this year from St. Petersburg, Florida. Britz, 63, said he was drawn by what seemed like a good job market, but he still struggles with addiction. He lives mainly on a Social Security checks.
About a month and a half ago, he ended up at a Salvation Army shelter, where a navigator started finding him places to stay, first at a cheap motel paid for with philanthropic dollars and then at UNITY’s new residential building on Canal Street in Mid-City.
“You need a place to live most of all, to get your life together,” Britz said. “You need a place to live first.”