So Your Community Ended Veteran Homelessness. Now What?

Earlier this year, New Orleans, which once had one of the highest per-capita rates of veteran homelessness in the nation, created serious buzz by becoming the first major city to effectively end veteran homelessness. With Houston following suit earlier this month, and more cities poised to make similar announcements, it is worth taking a look at New Orleans “six months on” to get a sense of what happens after the press conferences and a visit from the First Lady. In other words: what happens after you reach zero?

It is no secret that even after announcing an end to veteran homelessness, the work around re-housing homeless veterans and keeping veterans in housing never really ends. New Orleans is currently working very hard to sustain their progress. The city, in partnership with UNITY, the lead agency for the homeless Continuum of Care, has set up a rapid response system to quickly locate and house homeless veterans, with the goal of housing them within 30 days. The rapid response system has been the cornerstone of maintaining a “functional zero.”

Most of the elements that helped New Orleans reach zero have remained in place: maintaining and working a master list of homeless veterans, continuous outreach to find homeless veterans, connecting shelters with SSVF providers, weekly meetings with housing navigators, continuing to prioritize housing resources for homeless veterans, and weekly review of data on performance and resource utilization. This system has allowed New Orleans to permanently house an additional 63 homeless veterans since the January announcement. A majority of those were housed within three weeks, well within the ambitious goal to re-house all veterans who become homeless within 30 days.

The preliminary data from the 2015 Point-in-Time Count shows 27 unsheltered homeless veterans either living on the street or in emergency shelters in New Orleans. For comparison, in January 2011, the PIT Count identified 470 veterans living on the street or in emergency shelter. The huge decline is noteworthy, but highlights a basic truth—there will always be veterans falling into homelessness as a result of poverty, disability, and lack of affordable housing. So what any community needs is a system in place to ensure homelessness is rare, brief, and nonrecurring for any veteran.

The drive to December is extremely important, and reaching “functional zero” is a critical step in the process of addressing ending veteran homelessness, but it is just one step. New Orleans has learned that maintaining zero is another challenge altogether, one for which communities must be prepared. New Orleans has shown that ending veteran homelessness is possible, but also that it is important not just to think about January 2016, but what comes after. The good news is that, yet again, if New Orleans can do it, so can your community.

To learn more about what New Orleans and UNITY are doing around ending veteran homelessness, join us for a webinar on Thursday, June 18 at 1:00 pm EDT. Register here.