Standing at a podium before New Orleans’s bigwigs was an unusual place for a homeless veteran — or as he corrected the presenter at the press conference, “a former homeless vet.” Now living in permanent housing, he thanked the audience “for possibly saving my life, cus I don’t know if I could have survived another night on the street. … On behalf of all homeless veterans, I want to thank you.”
This month, New Orleans succeeded in becoming the first major U.S. city to house every single homeless veteran.
In a collaboration unprecedented in scope, government agencies and nonprofits united around one common goal of housing at least 193 veterans, the number of homeless in New Orleans that were counted at the last point-in-time survey. Together, almost a year ahead of schedule, they exceeded that goal, placing 227 veterans into apartments in 2014.
“Veteran homelessness is an important and challenging issue, and we are very proud of our accomplishment today in New Orleans,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at the city’s World War II Museum. “We owe our veterans our eternal gratitude for their service and sacrifice to this nation and making sure they have a place to call home is a small but powerful way we can show our appreciation.”
New Orleans’s undertaking began in 2011 with the creation of a 10-year plan to end chronic and family homelessness and a 5-year goal for ending veteran homelessness. (In May 2012, there were 570 veterans living on the streets.) The city was still reeling from Katrina’s destruction: nearly 11,600 people were living on the streets in 2007 and many neighborhoods had yet to rebuild. One of the key advances was the formation of an interagency council, a centralized effort that would unite all five-dozen partner agencies and service providers — from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development all the way down to Ozanam Inn, a local shelter — in what New Orleans refers to as a “continuum of care.” It also includes a committee of active duty military (a group that could quickly establish trust) who scoured the streets locating homeless vets and helping those in transition make the move into new housing.
This collaboration streamlined services for veterans, particularly after a referral center, which served as a day shelter and offered case management, opened up inside the V.A. hospital in 2013. Locating assistance in the hospital not only made it easily accessible for struggling vets, it also advertises its services for those who may one day need help. It’s still the only center of its type in the country.
“This initiative, which has addressed the immediate needs of our city’s homeless veterans while creating a structure for the future, is a testament to the strength of the partnerships that have been forged among government, nonprofit, and private entities as we work together to rebuild a stronger, more sustainable New Orleans,” says City Councilmember Susan Guidry.
In 2013, almost $5 million became available through HUD’s HOME program, which pays for the construction of affordable housing or rental assistance for low-income tenants, and the city earmarked much of that money to combat overall homelessness. Using those funds and vouchers provided through the Department of Veterans Affairs, New Orleans asked landlords to list affordable rentals in one online database. Veterans were given homes without any conditions since the city endorsed “Housing First” and “No Wrong Door,” which aligns caregivers with shared information to help them obtain any needed service, regardless of which door they show up at first.
Since then, New Orleans has pushed local businesses to prioritize hiring veterans and has set up a criminal court that can respond to their unique situation, among many other cutting–edge innovations.
“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,” says Martha Kegel, the executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans. “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.”
Although veterans may continue to experience homelessness because of poverty or disability, New Orleans has reached a “functional zero,” which means every known homeless veteran has been housed permanently or is on the way to a designated apartment.
Last summer, after First Lady Michelle Obama issued a challenge for cities to end veteran homelessness by 2015, all the New Orleans’s groups involved redoubled their efforts. While Binghamton, N.Y., (pop. 46,400) was technically the first, New Orleans’s feat has yet to be replicated in a major metropolis.
“Quite simply, the men and women who have defended our freedom deserve to return to the American Dream. Far too often we as a nation have failed them in that regard,” says Jared Brossett, another city councilmember. “The fact that New Orleans is on the leading edge of ending veteran homelessness is something of which we should all be proud.”
While Phoenix and Salt Lake City ended chronic homelessness last year after a friendly competition (spoiler: Phoenix won), both western cities are still working towards eradicating veteran homelessness altogether. Los Angeles, Chicago and Wichita, as well as 300 other mayors, six governors and some 70 county officials across the nation are all hoping to house all the homeless veterans in their towns by the year’s end.
Some observers have doubted whether New Orleans’s recent veterans housing push is a sustainable solution, stressing that preventive measures like counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder could keep them off the street in the first place. Those groups want to see a shuttered hospital reopened as a facility to treat mental illness.
Mayor Landrieu readily admits, “The work of ending veteran homelessness is never really done.”
But in response to the huge task, Landrieu announced a new “rapid response model” at the same time he celebrated his city’s hard-won success. This system will centralize “all available local, state and federal resources” and link veterans on the brink with active duty and former soldiers, essentially “utilizing veterans to help veterans.”
There’s also a structure now in place to ensure no vet will fall through the cracks: The mayor promised any veteran who loses his housing will be housed within an average of 30 days.
The city’s milestone has galvanized advocates across the country, far beyond this corner of southern Louisiana. As of the last count on a single January night last year, veteran homelessness nationwide has declined by one-third since 2010, but 49,933 vets still lacked safe and stable housing.
“This remarkable achievement is significant to the entire nation — to every state and community that has the will to end veteran homelessness before the end of 2015,” says Laura Green Zeilinger, the executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness who’s coordinating policy among 19 federal agencies. “New Orleans, by answering the call that it must be done, proved to all of us that eliminating veteran homelessness can and will be done.” And after that? Let’s “build on this success to end homelessness for all Americans,” Zeilinger adds.