New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu is leading the city in the fight to end veteran homelessness.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

How Does the Big Easy Maintain Its Success Housing Homeless Veterans?

After being the first U.S. city to meet the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, New Orleans continues its efforts to keep American heroes off the streets.

Prompted by a call from First Lady Michelle Obama to end veteran homelessness by 2015, New Orleans, Houston, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and 15 other cities as well as the entire Commonwealth of Virginia met that challenge. However, you’ll still spot former service members sleeping on the streets of each of those locales today.

Homelessness, after all, is not a static challenge. As quick as a dozen former warriors are placed in housing, a Greyhound bus could drop an Iraq War veteran off in Mobile, Ala., with no place to sleep, for example, or a Gulf War soldier in Syracuse, N.Y., could lose his job and then his apartment. “The truth is that ending veteran homelessness requires daily work,” Sam Joel, a policy advisor who assists New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in leading the city’s work to end veteran homelessness, tells NationSwell. “We did what we sought to do. But it’s one thing to reach a goal, and another thing to sustain it.”

As volunteers fan out across urban areas this month to log a point-in-time homeless count, mayors and policymakers await figures on whether the systems they created were effective enough to keep veterans housed. (Last January, 47,725 veterans nationwide were homeless.) The exact definition of how to “end homelessness” varies; the gold standard — achieving “functional zero” — provided by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness generally defines it as offering interim shelter and then permanent housing to every homeless veteran who has been identified, plus creating the capacity to house any newly homeless vets as quickly as possible, usually in a 90-day period.

Approaching the one-year anniversary of its achievement, New Orleans is confident they’ll be pleased with their updated numbers. For one, the Big Easy now maintains an “active list,” that tracks every homeless veteran by name and the details of when and where they checked in for services — so it’s pretty much aware of any population fluctuations.

The city’s data is also a metric of how far it has come since Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. Back in 2010, when Landrieu took office, nearly 4,500 people (down from 117,600 in 2007) were still stranded without homes in the Crescent City. “In New Orleans, we are all too familiar with the feeling of homelessness. After Hurricane Katrina, literally all of us were without a home,” Landrieu wrote in an op-ed. By last January, only 1,700 remained homeless. Shortly after, New Orleans was certified as the first major city to end veteran homelessness.

Many people ask what’s the Big Easy’s secret? Joel says there are three: “partnership, partnership, partnership.” Previously, services overlapped and communication lagged. Today, local, state and federal agencies come together to collaborate on the same goal.

With the help of active duty military and other veterans, New Orleans sweeps every block to find homeless vets and usually connects them to permanent housing within a few weeks, Joel reports. While unable to provide an exact figure of days that pass before being housed, Joel says the average is below the original 30-day goal.

As New Orleans is pioneering best practices for maintaining an end to veteran homelessness, other local and state governments are hoping to achieve the same. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness plays a key role by sharing strategies and data across communities, facilitating collaborations, checking in to “make sure we’re being as strategic as possible” and ensuring the momentum is sustained nationwide, says Robert Pulster, regional coordinator for the council.

“I think there was a moral imperative to support men and women who had served in the military, to see they were well cared for,” Pulster says. With leadership from the White House, plus bipartisan support from Congress, the country has an unique opportunity to end veteran homelessness nationwide.

More importantly, however, is the idea that ending veteran homelessness is the first step in ending homelessness of all types. “We realized we could learn a lot about how to build the kind of collaborative systems and how we use resources to serve the entire population,” he continues. It doesn’t matter whether they’re led by a strong mayor or governor, cities like New Orleans prove that ending veteran homelessness is both possible and sustainable.

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Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at chris@nationswell.com.