The city of New Orleans has come a long way in the nine or so years since the surging waters of Hurricane Katrina devastated large swaths of the city and displaced more than 400,000 of its residents. Before Katrina, a little more than 2,000 people experienced homelessness on a given night. By 2007, that number swelled to more than 11,500.
After Hurricane Katrina, homelessness skyrocketed in New Orleans as a result of the destruction of much of the housing stock and the disappearance of jobs. But in the intervening years, through incredible work of leaders in that community and dedicated advocates and officials around the country, the number of people living on the streets, in shelters, and in abandoned buildings has declined significantly.
As of January 2014, the number people in Jefferson and Orleans parishes who experience homelessness on a given night had declined to 1,981 people. The homeless service system in New Orleans has become a national model for street outreach, landlord outreach, targeting of permanent supportive housing, rapid re-housing, and other strategies for fighting homelessness. Unity of Greater New Orleans, which leads the Continuum of Care, has repeatedly shown itself to be a powerhouse, working with the mayor’s office to build the effectiveness of this system.
Last week the city reached a new and historic milestone when Mayor Landrieu announced that New Orleans had ended homelessness among veterans. Ending veteran homelessness is, of course, a major goal of “Opening Doors: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.” Under Opening Doors, the benchmark date set for ending veteran homelessness is the end of 2015.
In New Orleans, Mayor Landrieu and his partners saw the progress they’d already made and the resources that were on the table, and they decided they had no good reason to take that long. The mayor came to Washington, D.C. and publicly committed to ending veteran homelessness in New Orleans by the end of 2014, a year ahead of Opening Doors.
Other communities can learn a great deal from New Orleans’s accomplishment, and here at the Alliance we are already spreading the word. Doubtless, there is a lot of technical detail to share, but perhaps the biggest lesson to take from New Orleans’ success is that, when it comes to ending homelessness, communities and their leaders need not just the technical knowhow, but also the inspiration to commit.
Getting as many communities as possible to zero by the end of the year is a major priority for us this year. New Orleans succeeded because a bunch of people who already had plenty of other urgent matters on their plate chose to focus strongly on this goal, to grab ahold of the problem and not let go until it was solved.
Let’s resolve that 2015 will end with a huge surge of homeless veterans moving into housing, thanks to preparation that has already taken place and that will take place with increasing intensity over the coming months. They’ve earned it, and we have what it takes to make it a reality.