Advancing National Service

The Big Easy’s Challenge to U.S. Cities: House Our Veterans

April 27, 2015
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The Big Easy’s Challenge to U.S. Cities: House Our Veterans
In total, New Orleans placed 227 veterans in housing in 2014. Mario Tama/Getty Images
New Orleans housed 227 homeless heroes. Now other communities must do the same.

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama flew to New Orleans to celebrate their milestone achievement of being the first major U.S. city to end veteran homelessness. In an event with the city’s leaders, Obama said the Big Easy’s success was a call to action for the rest of the country.

“You all have proven that even in a city as big as New Orleans, veteran homelessness is not a reality we have to accept. It’s not an impossible problem that is too big to be solved,” Obama said. “We want cities across this country to follow your lead.”

As we wrote earlier this year, the city at the mouth of the Mississippi River developed several initiatives that proved essential to reducing a spike in homelessness after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. An interagency council on homelessness united approximately 60 agencies under a common banner of ending veteran, chronic and family homelessness. Together, they organized active-duty military personnel into outreach teams to homeless vets and set up a referral center within the VA hospital. Touting “Housing First” and “No Wrong Door” (an initiative that allows for single point access to care), the city witnessed a rapid success: Last year, they housed 227 homeless warriors, surpassing the 193 veterans that had been counted in the previous point-in-time survey.

“To be able to give so many homeless veterans a forever home — most of them disabled and a quarter of them elderly — in such a short period of time was extremely challenging but incredibly exhilarating for all of the many partners in this effort,” Martha Kegel, the executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, said at the time. “That so many veterans who have risked their lives to serve our country are left homeless, especially in their later years, shocks the conscience. To bring them home, once and for all, has been very rewarding.”

To help other cities accomplish the same goal, the First Lady announced $65 million in HUD and VA funding that will provide rental assistance for 9,300 vets, the same vouchers that helped many New Orleans fund new construction or subsidize rent to landlords. She added that The Blackstone Group, a private equity firm that owns hotel chains like Hilton, Motel 6 and La Quinta Inns and Suites, will partner with 25 cities to furnish homeless soldiers’ new apartments.

“All of us know the hard truth, that this job is never going to end,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said last week. “Tomorrow there is another veteran that will find themselves in a difficult circumstance and is going to need housing.” But now, New Orleans has procedures in place to find those vets and help them transition to housing within an average of 30 days, he added. ”We never leave a soldier on the battlefield, and we certainly never leave a soldier on the streets of America.”

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