In early January 2015, New Orleans, Louisiana became the first major US city to announce that it had effectively ended homelessness among veterans.
In January 2014, New Orleans identified 193 homeless veterans in its annual Point-in-Time (PIT) Count. Throughout 2014, the leaders from the city, the Continuum of Care (CoC), and veteran assistance systems made a concerted, city-wide effort to house these veterans and others who became homeless during the year. In the end, 227 homeless veterans were housed in the course of a year. As a result, at the end of the year the city had effectively ended homelessness among veterans in New Orleans.
Ending veteran homelessness was not an easy feat. New Orleans is the biggest city in Louisiana, home to approximately 400,000 people. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina decimated the city’s population and ravaged its economy and infrastructure. By 2007, over 11,600 people were homeless. Since then, however, the number has decreased significantly. One cause of the reduction is the on-going economic recovery of the city. But another is the innovative work of UNITY of Greater New Orleans (UNITY) and the CoC, which developed significant capacity to find the most vulnerable homeless people and move them from the streets and into permanent housing. This was accomplished in partnership with federal agencies, the State of Louisiana, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, and the Housing Authority of New Orleans. Because of this work, in 2014 the number of homeless people had been reduced by 83 percent in the past seven years—from 11,600 to 1,981.
Building upon this work, in 2011, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu convened a diverse group of stakeholders to develop a 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness and formed the New Orleans Interagency Council on Homelessness. On July 4, 2014, he accepted First Lady Michelle Obama’s Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. The date for achieving the goal of that initiative was the end of 2015. However, given the capacity of the city to move homeless people back into housing, the Mayor set the date for achieving the goal in New Orleans a full year earlier.
On January 7, 2015, the city and its partners announced that the goal had been achieved.
Partners in this effort have identified the following as key strategies in achieving this goal.
Mayor Landrieu’s direct involvement in setting and achieving the goal of ending veteran homelessness in only a little over five months was critical. His commitment drew many new partners to the table, and it provided necessary cross-sector coordination. His very public involvement increased accountability on the part of the city and other partners.
New Orleans adopted an “all hands on deck” approach to ending veteran homelessness. It centered on key partnerships between numerous agencies and officials, including the Mayor’s office, the lead CoC agency (UNITY of Greater New Orleans), the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System (SLVHCS), and the area public housing and redevelopment authorities. These, and other partners as needed, met on a weekly basis through 2014 to discuss individual veteran’s cases, identify available housing stock, and assign goals to be accomplished in the upcoming week. These frequent check-ins held partners accountable while ensuring all efforts were coordinated and streamlined to have the biggest impact.
The Master List.
A first step in the initiative was compiling a master list of veterans known to be homeless, according to the definition used in the PIT Count. It was then necessary to determine which of these veterans were eligible for Veterans Affairs (VA) housing—and which were not—so that the proper program could house them. This process took nearly two months and required greatly improved communication between VA and the CoC to ensure that every veteran was identified and to avoid duplication.
The next step was to assign veterans to navigators who could assess their needs and take responsibility for the paperwork necessary to get them into an appropriate housing program. New Orleans also implemented an innovative partnership with active duty military service members and veterans (over 150) to assist in contacting and housing homeless veterans. Supplementing their work was a highly skilled and experienced outreach team working on the streets and in abandoned buildings every night and navigators from nonprofit partners who surveyed homeless shelters nightly. Together, these workers built relationships with the veterans and helped get them housed.
To reach the goal, it was necessary for relevant housing programs to prioritize literally homeless veterans from the master list over other people on whom their programs typically focus. This effort allowed for the removal of barriers, the eliminating of bottlenecks, and speeding up the housing process. It also required improved targeting of homeless veterans, as, prior to this initiative, literally homeless veterans were not being as highly prioritized for housing.
Finding New Pathways to Housing.
The partnership had to find as many units of housing as possible to reach the goal. Housing had to be found both for veterans who were eligible for VA assistance, and for those whose service status made them ineligible for VA assistance (and thus had to be housed by non-VA programs). Creating more housing and acquiring permission from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and VA nationally to move veterans from one program to another as necessary provided the initiative with the agility it needed. There were several key housing strategies. Many of the 109 units in The Sacred Heart Apartments were reserved for chronically homeless veterans. A new rapid re-housing grant was targeted to veterans. The VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF)—or short term rental assistance—and the joint HUD-VA Supportive Housing (VASH) voucher program—or permanent housing assistance and services—supplied rental subsidies and services. The Mayor’s office was instrumental in creating a Memorandum of Understanding between the Housing Authority of New Orleans, the SLVHCS, and UNITY to set aside 200 Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers for veterans graduating from permanent supportive housing programs. This allowed the HUD-VASH vouchers and other permanent supportive housing resources to be freed up for chronically homeless veterans.
Data Collection and Sharing.
To ensure progress toward the city’s goal of ending veteran homelessness, partners began monthly counts of all homeless veterans in New Orleans, including sheltered veterans, unsheltered veterans, and those in transitional housing. UNITY and SLVHCS arranged a data sharing agreement to ensure all veterans in both systems received appropriate services and interventions to which they were entitled. Data sharing also allowed for better and more regular communication between the CoC and the SLVCHS.
Taking the Next Step.
Although veterans homeless in 2014 were housed, it is certain that in 2015 and beyond veterans will continue to have housing crises—and that some will become homeless. To ensure that veterans who become homeless in the future are re-housed in an average of 30 days, a Rapid Response System had to be created. New Orleans’ three SSVF grantee agencies are on the front lines of this system. UNITY monitors the shelters nightly and arranges for the SSVF agencies immediately to meet any veteran found in an emergency shelter. The veterans are then assessed using the Vulnerability Index & Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT) and transported to the Community Resource and Referral Center, where they are assessed for medical and psychiatric problems and eligibility for VA programs. In addition, the CoC outreach team continues to search for veterans on the streets and in abandoned buildings, and their efforts will be frequently supplemented by participation from active duty military.
Michael Washington is a veteran who was homeless for 20 years. Mr. Washington served in the Air Force Reserve for six years, including service in London, Denver, San Antonio, and Belle Chasse, Louisiana. He was a Mess Hall Sergeant and a cook. Soon after his honorable discharge and suffering from mental illness, he became homeless.
Mr. Washington was found by a UNITY outreach team sleeping under a bus stand in New Orleans, at Elysian Fields Avenue and Gentilly Boulevard. While on the street, he was beaten up several times. During his initial assessment, Mr. Washington told a social worker that he wished he had never been born.
In September 2014, at a dedication for the UNITY Williams building, a new permanent supportive housing building named for the organization’s founder, Mr. Washington asked the audience, “Can you imagine what I have endured?”
Things are different now. On Friday, September 19, Mr. Washington moved into his very own apartment in the Williams building. The first thing he purchased was soap so he could wash his clothes and take a bath. He says it feels great to have his apartment and that he finally feels human again.
As of early January 2015, New Orleans ended homelessness among veterans in the city. This meant that they were either already in housing, or were in the process of being housed. The city is committed to maintaining that status, having built the capacity to re-house any newly-homeless veterans in an average of 30 days after their military service is confirmed. New Orleans has made veteran homelessness a rare, brief, and nonrecurring experience.