The New Orleans Cafe Feeding Souls With More Than Food

Katherine Hutton always believed food expressed love, but never imagined her cooking would draw her New Orleans neighborhood together.
What started as a way for her to make ends meet, Open Hands Cafe is now a source of inspiration and love for all those who walk in its doors. Serving up more than just delicious comfort food, Katherine uses her tiny cafe to introduce young people to entrepreneurship and create a caring space for those who need it.
While her journey through homelessness, hurricanes and hardship has been bittersweet, Katherine takes pride in knowing that everyone feels “loved on” at Open Hands Cafe.

This article was created by Weave: The Social Fabric Project of the Aspen Institute. Weave supports people who live in a way that puts relationships and community first. These “Weavers” lead with love and defy a culture of hyper-individualism that has left Americans feeling more lonely, distrustful and divided than ever. See their stories and learn more here.

The Houses That Help Keep HIV at Bay

At the Belle Reve group home in New Orleans, residents are running for cover. What started as a sunny day in early October quickly turned into monsoon weather, with more than three inches of rain slamming the city within an hour and flooding the streets.
But on the back porch of Belle Reve, an assisted-living facility for low-income and homeless people living with HIV, executive director Vicki Weeks calmly takes a drag off an American Spirit.
“Are you ready?” she asks, stubbing out her cigarette before taking me to meet a few of the residents, some of whom have been there off and on since Hurricane Katrina decimated parts of the city in 2005. “This storm is nothing. At this place, we’ve been through a lot. And damned if I tell you we’re not being tried right now.”
Weeks is referring to the millions of dollars it takes to keep the nonprofit operational — hundreds of thousands of which are in jeopardy by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The agency has determined the needs of people living with HIV have changed as the virus has become increasingly manageable and is no longer seen as a death sentence. As a result, the government is planning to shift funds and grants away from group homes like Belle Reve in order to direct more resources to helping HIV-positive people find permanent housing instead.
But for cities with high rates of HIV among homeless or drug addicted populations — New Orleans ranks second in the U.S. for transmission rates — group homes are critical in preventing the virus from spreading. Many of these facilities also treat drug abuse and offer other support services, like counseling, medical oversight and life-skills classes. This wraparound support helps keep the virus in residents at healthy, undetectable levels, making it statistically impossible for them to transmit HIV to others while also boosting their chances of obtaining work and, eventually, living on their own.

Ronnie, a resident of Belle Reve, has been living with HIV for almost six years after contracting the virus from a sexual partner. After years of addiction and homelessness, his time at Belle Reve helped him become sober and undetectable.

There are homeless shelters in New Orleans, of course, but the options for people who are both homeless and HIV positive — especially those who are also in need of drug rehabilitation — are limited. That, despite the fact that facilities housing HIV-positive patients have been shown to improve their health outcomes.
The group-home model helped Phaedra, a 55-year-old woman living with HIV, start to get her life back on track. Phaedra, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her privacy, credits the New Orleans nonprofit Project Lazarus, which provides housing as well as classes, therapy and case management, for her progress. After leaving the home in 2017, Phaedra has been living with her boyfriend and actively searching for work.
“I’m doing my best, and I can say I’m really trying,” she says.
Diagnosed with HIV over 20 years ago, Phaedra has been abusing drugs on and off for decades. “I did everything that could give me HIV, including using IV drugs,” she says now. “I wouldn’t even know whose needle I was using.”
Through proper medical care, her viral load is now at undetectable levels. In that sense, Phaedra is lucky: According to a 2013 report from Human Rights Watch, injection drug users in Louisiana were more likely to develop AIDS within six months of receiving an HIV diagnosis due to a lack of social services.
This dearth of statewide support and services is an obstacle that administrators at Project Lazarus are trying to account for by offering former residents aftercare assistance. So people like Phaedra are paired with specialists who guide them through the job-application process and help them secure permanent housing after they leave — all of which is crucial to keeping them healthy and unable to spread HIV.
This aftercare support is a large departure from the original mission of Project Lazarus and similar facilities caring for those with HIV and AIDS, most of which were established in the late 1980s and ’90s at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
“This used to be a place for people to come and die,” says Nicole Kiernan, an aftercare specialist at Project Lazarus, explaining that the home was formerly used for hospice care for people dying of complications from AIDS. “You didn’t come here to move out at some point, like most people here do now.”
Though medical advancements in treating HIV and AIDS no longer make end-of-life care as critical as before, group homes are sorely needed — at least in New Orleans — as the virus shifts away from primarily affecting gay men. Today, that burden is shared disproportionately with poor communities of color, particularly in the South. Even more to the point, several studies have linked homelessness with a higher risk of contracting HIV, especially for those who are both homeless and young.
“Sometimes we only have one bed available, but have five people who are applying to get it,” Weeks says. And it’s an issue that Kiernan alluded to as well: In an area with over 1,100 homeless people at risk of contracting HIV, there’s just not enough places to shelter them and provide them with life-prolonging medication.
That’s making things worse in Louisiana, where in the past two years HIV diagnoses among drug users has almost doubled, according to the state’s Department of Health quarterly report released last spring. In 2017, nearly 5 percent of those diagnosed were injection drug users. By March of this year, that number increased to just over 9 percent.

              “We’re the ones standing here helping
               these people, and we will continue to do
               so until time runs out for us.”

Complicating an already dire housing situation? Access to funds — or rather, lack thereof.
Group homes that rely on grants from HUD through the program Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS (HOPWA) are expecting for the first time in 25 years to see their funding reduced.
“We’ve surveyed the people who get this money and we found that a lot of people who would use these funds actually need them more for permanent housing and not transitional [housing],” a spokesperson for HUD tells NationSwell, referencing that medical trends in HIV care have pushed the department to reevaluate where funds should go. “Even the name of the grants refers to people living with AIDS and, in reality, it’s just not at the prevalence it was. We need to modernize.”
Outside of Louisiana, that trend proves true, according to Kira Radtke Friedrich, services manager for the state’s STD/HIV program that monitors rural HOPWA funding.
“We saw a shift in the late ’90s to early ’00s. People didn’t want to live in group homes anymore,” Friedrich tells NationSwell. “We started hearing from our clients that, ‘I’m independent. I don’t want to live in a group-home setting.’”
But Friedrich admitted that the needs of rural populations are different from the needs of cities, where group facilities for homeless or addicted populations living with HIV are still warranted. “The burden is definitely heavier in New Orleans and Baton Rouge,” she says.
“We’re consistently ranked one of the worst in the nation for HIV and AIDS,” says Belle Reve’s Weeks of Louisiana’s two largest cities. “That’s not going to get any better if we just push these people out. And most of the people in these homes can’t function in permanent housing immediately.
“We’re the ones standing here helping these people, and we will continue to do so until time runs out for us. I just hope we can hang on.”

This is the second installment in NationSwell’s multimedia series “Positive in the South,” which explores the HIV crisis in the Southern U.S., and profiles the people and organizations working to alleviate it.

New Orleans Floods With Heavy Rainstorms. Magnolias Could Be Part of the Solution

Louisiana weather in the summer is temperamental — and residents brace for the worst every year.
People who live in this swampy coastal state know that a light rain could easily turn into a torrential downpour, resulting in sheets of water that spill from rooftops and flood the streets or overflow estuaries that feed into larger lakes.
That’s exactly what happened in New Orleans earlier this summer, and last summer and the summer before last.
“If there’s a half inch of rain falling, my street is flooded,” says Ramiro Diaz, an urban architect who sits on the board of the city’s Zoning and Adjustments Commission. “It’s an intensity thing. For us, a regular rain here is like monsoon rains for people in California. We can get half an inch of rain in 15 minutes.”
The problem isn’t just that New Orleans is a wet city that sits on top of water tables, or that it’s surrounded by swampland and is also partly below sea level (and sinking even more). It also has a lot to do with the way the city looks: It’s completely gray.
Pavement in New Orleans is everywhere, especially in the suburbs. Those areas — some of the lowest-lying in the city — are where water is meant to drain from the higher elevation areas, such as the French Quarter. But the excess of pavement covering such neighborhoods has transformed permeable land into impenetrable surface. As a result, water that should flow to the suburbs at a pace slow enough for the city’s drains and pumps to manage it is moving too quickly. And there’s just too much of it.
But a city-backed initiative is helping city residents manage flooding on their properties. The project, Front Yard Initiative, reimburses homeowners to tear out pavement in their yards and replace it with rain gardens, local plants that can absorb large amounts of water and rain barrels. So far, the Front Yard Initiative has been adopted by 43 homeowners in three New Orleans neighborhoods, and city planners have argued that the project — if adopted by enough people — might help reduce flooding throughout the city.

An aerial view of the French Quarter of New Orleans shows just how gray the city can appear.


Vivek Shaw lives just off Broad Street, a main thoroughfare in the Mid-City neighborhood, north of the French Quarter. His street is standard-issue New Orleans suburb: shotgun homes and Creole cottages, many raised on stilts, lined up side-by-side. All of the landscape is paved.
“All this [pavement] contributes to flooding,” Shaw says, pointing to one home on his street that is paved all the way around its perimeter. Next to Shaw’s home, crates have been placed for residents to cross the sidewalk to their stoops when the street floods. In August of last year, Shaw’s street, St. Ann, had 22 inches of flooding due to a heavy rain.
St. Ann is designed like most of the streets in New Orleans: The road has a slight downward tilt so that rainwater can run to the catch basins on Broad Street. The slope is slight enough so that instead of rushing down, the water moves in a measured way to the main thoroughfare, where the city’s five massive turbines and 120 water pumps push water back out to Lake Pontchartrain and, eventually, the sea.
But concrete has made that process cumbersome. Plants, sod and general greenery could easily absorb thousands of gallons of water so that the pumps aren’t overwhelmed, but most of the natural flora is gone.
“It’s like trying to drain a bathtub into a pipe the size of a straw,” says Diaz. “The more we pave the city, the faster the water runs off to those drains. And the drains are undersized and overwhelmed with rainstorms.”
(It’s also worth noting that the city found the drain pipes clogged with, literally, tons of Mardi Gras beads.)
It’s unknown how much pavement actually covers New Orleans. The city has never had a GIS — a software approach to mapping geographic and architectural layers of a city — officially in place. Heavy construction of the city after WWII meant that the suburbs were booming in Orleans Parish, but that also meant draining away the water shelf and paving over the land.
Paving land in this part of the South was deliberate, in order to fend off disease — stagnant water and natural ditches in the ground are breeding grounds for mosquitos, says Diaz.
“Ditches were vectors for disease. Once we realized, for example, yellow fever was water-related, we got rid of the water everywhere,” says Diaz, whose architecture firm was key in creating an urban water plan proposal. “To get rid of mosquitos you have to annihilate everything.”
New Orleans is built on a foundation of wet clay. By paving over it indiscriminately, the clay is drying out and shrinking, a process called subsidence that leads to infrastructure nightmares like cracked roads and shattered pipes.
As a result, the city is falling ever deeper below sea level — and that’s making the situation even worse. A city that once did its best to keep the swamp away is now swimming in water.


Walk through any garden party in New Orleans and you’re bound to encounter a whiff of honey and spice. It’s the telltale smell of swamp milkweed, pink bushels of flowers native to the South.
Swamp milkweed is one of dozens of plants in the area, including sweetbay magnolias and dwarf palmettos, that can absorb large amounts of water. They’re just a few of the plants that Front Yard Initiative recommends using when decorating water-absorbing lawns, says Felice Lavergne, a project manager for the Urban Conservancy.
“These plants practically live in water,” says Lavergne. “They have deep roots that take in the ground water which helps with absorption.”
Front Yard Initiative’s reimbursement levels for pavement removal are small, Lavergne admits, only $2.50 a square foot, up to a max of $1,250 per property. The cost of removing pavement is often three times that high — which doesn’t factor in landscape and gardening costs — but it’s an incentive for homeowners to take action in communities that suffer consistent flooding. (The program has reimbursed homeowners a total of $42,446 to date.)
So far, Front Yard has been able to clear over 25,000 square feet of pavement. That’s only half the square footage of a typical football field, but breaking it down by household, an average of 600 square feet of pavement has been removed from 43 homes.
One Broadmoor homeowner tore up 343 square feet of pavement around his home and replaced it with bioswales, gravel and underground water storage that holds 11,000 gallons of water — enough water to fill a small swimming pool. The home takes in water for the whole street.
And that makes a difference, says Lavergne.
“We can’t say that replacing pavement with a rain garden is going to stop flooding, but it absolutely alleviates it,” she says, adding that Front Yard Initiative’s collective yard-greening so far captures over 35,000 gallons of water.

Vivek Shaw stands in front of his home and rain garden in Mid-City, New Orleans. His neighborhood last year had over 22 inches of flooding, which, officials say, can be alleviated in the future if more neighborhoods replace pavement with greenery.

It’s exactly what Shaw, the homeowner on St. Ann Street, did when he first moved in. He removed less than 100-square feet of concrete from his front yard and replaced it with a rain garden that holds 80 gallons of water.
“It’s small, but if everyone does it, we might not have as much flooding,” he says.
That’s not untrue, says Diaz. He and his team found that if everyone in New Orleans Parish had some form of water storage — even 30 gallons worth, or enough to fill a rain barrel — pumps wouldn’t be inundated with rainwater during heavy rains.
The Front Yard Initiative has received verbal support from the city, which has been under increasing pressure to build a more resilient New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. After 12 years, the storm still wreaks havoc on city budgets that are geared towards rebuilding streets via FEMA grants that only permit streets to be rebuilt exactly as they were before the 2005 storm.
“We got all this money from FEMA to fix our streets, but if you [fix] a street back to what it was when it didn’t work, it doesn’t make much sense,” Diaz says.
City officials have struggled for years to find money for projects to revitalize roads and allow water to flow down them in more sustainable ways, and city councillors have turned to federal grants to fund more resilient landscape programs that resemble the Front Yard Initiative’s program.
In the Gentilly neighborhood, for example, $141 million in Housing and Urban Development grants will fund the creation of a massive rain garden which could hold up 1.23 million feet of water.
And Urban Conservancy, Front Yard Initiative’s parent organization, has partnered with Greenlight NOLA to incentivize homeowners to replace their pavement in conjunction with the resiliency project.
“This is a community effort,” says Lavergne. “In New Orleans, you know your neighbors, you care for your neighbors and hang out with them and know each other’s kids. By protecting your home in this really simple way, you’re protecting your neighbor.”

Participatory Budgeting Goes High-Tech in the Big Easy

New Orleans has made significant strides since Hurricane Katrina battered the city’s neighborhoods in 2005. Since then, it’s brought back its main industry — tourism— and older areas, including Faubourg Marigny and Tremé have become new again.
But long-time residents, who witnessed billions of post-Katrina dollars go to waste on poorly executed recovery and cleanup efforts in some of the hardest hit areas like the Lower Ninth Ward, are wary about how the government spends money.
“No matter what the dollar amount was, if the house next to you is still vacant and blighted and your street light still doesn’t work and your street still has potholes, it just doesn’t matter,” says Kelsey Foster, campaign manager for the Committee for a Better New Orleans. “That kind of translated into, ‘There’s money coming into town. I don’t see it happening on my block.’”
To increase civic participation and build interest in how government budgets, Foster created the Big Easy Budget Game, a multi-platform application that lets people suggest how much money the government should be spending and on what.
“We believe in the idea that cities work better when the people who live in them have a say in how they work. We believe that every New Orleanian has a voice, and every voice should be heard,” Foster says. “And so we’re here just to make sure that no matter what the issue is — whether we’re talking about the city budget or we’re talking about water management or paving streets — we think that the community needs to be consulted and that they know what’s best.”
The game is simple: Players log in and see a couple dozen white cups on the screen representing various spending allocations, as well as a finite number of red beans (a tip-of-the-hat to the local food staple, red beans n’ rice). Each bean represents $1 million dollars, and players choose where the beans go, be it rodent removal or civil service jobs. The results are tallied and used to inform budget meetings and local activists on how residents feel money should be spent.
“What is surprising is how off we are in regards to the priorities that are coming up from the ground, and then where the budget and the resources are being allocated,” says Latoya Cantrell, a New Orleans city councilwoman. “So one example could be youth and families, right? We spend about 3 percent of our budget on youth and families, but clearly, from the game [we see] our residents want more resources going toward youth and families.”
Before migrating online in 2016, the Big Easy Budget Game started as a physical game two years prior with actual red beans and cups. But from a data perspective, red beans are messy. They can break and manually counting them can result in a higher margin of error.
“It took forever,” Foster says, laughing.
So a digital version of the game was created.
In addition to desktop, The Big Easy Budget Game is available on mobile, which is beneficial to low-income communities, including those living of the Lower Ninth Ward who may want to offer their suggestions, but don’t access to a computer or broadband
Volunteers are also available to sit down with community members in neighborhoods with high illiteracy rates and walk them through the game.
The game is now being modeled and used by two other U.S. cities, says Foster.
“Our hope very much is that our next city council and our next mayor will really take to heart citizen participation and community involvement and come to us first and talk to us,” she says. “If we don’t start [the conversation] now, we’ll never get there.”
The 2017 AllStars program is produced in partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal and celebrates social entrepreneurs who are powering solutions with innovative technology. Visit from Oct. 2 to Nov. 2 to vote for your favorite AllStar. The winner will receive the AllStar Award, a $10,000 grant to help further his or her work advocating for change.
[button url=”” ]Vote for Kelsey Now![/button]

How President Trump’s Federal Budget Hits 3 Model Programs Gradually

At NationSwell, our mission is to highlight solutions driving America forward. From rural Appalachia to South Central Los Angeles, we’ve covered the work of dedicated individuals fighting to improve people’s lives. Here are a few updates on how President Trump’s proposed federal budget cuts to social programs could gradually rollback the positive impact made by these initiatives.

Could New Orleans Become the Silicon Valley of the South?

At first glance, Louisiana’s river delta might seem like an unusual place to hold a coding boot camp. For starters, it’s 2,250 miles from Apple’s and Facebook’s campuses in Silicon Valley. But when John Fraboni, a video game designer and jazz musician from Canada, relocated to the area a few years ago, he began noticing untapped tech talent all around him. Knowing that the booming tech industry offers its engineers both high salaries and meaningful work, Fraboni mapped out an intensive training program for at-risk youth called Operation Spark. The goal: Within four and a half months, his students would know how to program a website’s front and back ends, becoming “full-stack” developers, as it’s known in the industry.
Fraboni’s plan worked: Every single graduate from the immersion program now has a full-time job.
Operation Spark offers programming lessons in three sessions. The first, a two-week aptitude test, exposes kids to coding. Since only one-tenth of American high schools offer computer science, tinkering with a computer’s insides is a first-time experience for many. It’s during this two-week trial where, very quickly, “you figure out whether you love it or not,” says Fraboni. For those who do, a monthlong boot camp covers programming fundamentals, as participants build web applications. In the final phase, students immerse themselves in a comprehensive, three-month training on everything from algorithmic thinking to APIs and mobile, for up to 11 hours a day, six days a week.
Initially, Fraboni and just one other employee trained about 40 youth, a little more than half of whom would continue through all three phases. The company, though, is growing, having hired eight more instructors. Their COO, Max Gaudin, who started as a volunteer, is now in charge of expanding the program’s reach. The aim, says Fraboni, is to eventually take the model statewide.
Operation Spark fills a dire need in the New Orleans area, where approximately one in every five young adults is neither working nor pursuing a degree, a category of 16- to 24-year-olds known as “opportunity youth.” The city has the dubious distinction of ranking third in the country for disconnected young people, behind Memphis, Tenn., and Las Vegas. Currently, those 26,000 teens and mid-twentysomethings largely rely on public support and entitlement programs, a 2015 report by Tulane University found.
“There are a lot of people struggling here,” says Fraboni. “The prospects for them are maybe not the same that you and I had. Just think about what it’s like for someone from a low-income situation to figure out what to do in life. Most of us didn’t know what we wanted to be as undergrads, and our parents or our community were able to help us figure it out. A lot of young people in New Orleans don’t have that privilege.”
Fraboni was inspired to reach out to the city’s young people after moving back to the area three years ago. It was his second time living in the Bayou State. For five years in the late ’90s and early 2000s, he’d played drums in jazz clubs. In 2013, after quitting his job in Montreal designing video games, Fabroni returned to the South. He was grateful to New Orleans for welcoming him during his early concert gigs — “I was accepted despite my nationality, despite my race, and I was able to cross a lot of lines,” he says — and he wanted to give back to the city. After his most recent move, he connected with Tulane’s Center for Public Service and toured the city’s schools and community centers. Seeing kids using mobile apps, Fraboni wondered if he could tap into their curiosity about how the programs were made.
Video games became an entry point to get young adults’ attention. “That was the hook right there. If you have an Android phone, you can write an app with me right now and in two hours, you can show it off to your friends,” says Fraboni, who started teaching rudimentary classes at St. Anna’s Episcopal Church while applying for grants that could fund a more robust curriculum. He wanted kids to “really apply themselves in the way they need to jump from zero knowledge to a job,” Fraboni explains. Eventually, he paired up with Hack Reactor, a coding boot camp, to make that immersive experience happen.
During the last week of Operation Spark’s program, students refine their resumes and write cover letters to send to employers. Many of the newly minted software engineers now have jobs at big tech firms like Mumms Software and Susco, and their starting salaries range from $50,000 up to $120,000, Fraboni reports. Additionally, multinational corporations with offices in New Orleans have been snapping up Operation Spark grads; GE, for example, recently hired six at $70,000 a year. “We’ve had graduates who say, ‘I went from working in a coffee shop to billing $65 an hour.’ That’s not bad for four months of intensive training.”
But before they get those high-paying positions, Operation Spark encourages its participants to use their new coding skills for social good by developing apps and programs that drive change — some of which have been launched as real initiatives post-graduation. To that end, one group built a mobile app called Backscratch, where neighbors can barter points: a free ride to the airport for help painting, for instance. Another student developed an online platform to help finance microloans, such as for the last bit of funds needed to buy a used car. Operation Spark’s most high-profile project was a collaboration with the White House’s Police Data Initiative and the New Orleans Police Department, a weeklong code academy that even the police chief took part in. Parsing the cops’ crime stats, the students were able to create a few apps, including one that could average the response time to a 911 call based on location, and another that analyzed crime trends during large events, like the Mardi Gras parade.
While it’s been tough for Operation Spark’s grads to find programming jobs in New Orleans that compare to the Bay Area’s prestigious tech positions, more students are finding a way to stay in their hometown. Now that Fraboni’s ready to expand statewide, there will be a surging pool of employees ready to change Louisiana’s startup scene. It’s probably time to begin planning for a Silicon Bayou to emerge.


This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st-century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future-forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.

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

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.
MORE: One Man, His T-Shirts and an Honorable Mission to House Homeless Veterans

10 Outstanding Solutions of 2015

In a year when policing controversies, mass shootings and debates over immigration have dominated the headlines and discourse, there’s a group of inspirational pioneers at work. Not all of these individuals, policy makers and entrepreneurs are household names, but they all are improving this country by developing new ways to solve America’s biggest challenges. Here, NationSwell’s favorite solutions of the year.
Eighty percent of the workers at Rising Tide Car Wash, located in Parkland, Fla., are on the autism spectrum. Started by the father-and-son team of John and Tom D’Eri, Rising Tide gives their son and brother, Andrew, who was identified as an autistic individual at the age of three, and its other employees the chance to lead a fulfilling life. John and Tom determined that the car wash industry is a good match for those with autism since they’re more likely to be engaged by detailed, repetitive processes than those not on the spectrum. [ph]
The six NationSwell AllStars — Karen Washington, Eli Williamson, Rinku Sen, Seth Flaxman, DeVone Boggan and Amy Kaherl — are encouraging advancements in education and environmental sustainability, making government work better for its citizens, engaging people in national service, advancing the American dream and supporting our veterans. Click here to read and see how their individual projects are moving America forward. [ph]
The Midwest exurb of Boone County, Ind., has reduced the ratio of the top 20th percentile’s earnings compared to the bottom 80th percentile by 23 percent — the largest decline for any American county with more than 50,000 residents and an achievement stumped county officials. NationSwell pieced together the story of how a land battle and a statewide tax revolt altered the course of Boone County. Find out exactly how it happened here. [ph]
Ian Wright’s new venture, Wrightspeed, is far less glamorous than his previous venture creating luxury electric sedans. But Wrightspeed, which is installing range-extended electric powertrains (the generators that electric vehicles run on) in medium- and heavy-duty trucks for companies like the Ratto Group, Sonoma and Marin counties’ waste hauler, and shipping giant FedEx, could have a greater impact on the environment than electrifying personal vehicles. Click here to learn how. [ph]
Los Angeles’s large, 700-unit public housing development Jordan Downs consists of 103 identical buildings. Entryways to the two-story beige structures are darkened with black soot and grime, and the doors and windows are crossed with bars. Soon, the dilapidated complex will be revitalized by Joseph Paul, Jr., and his outreach team from SHIELDS for Families, which provides counseling, education and vocational training services. Read more about the plan, which calls for recreational parks and retail on site and would double the amount of available housing with 700 more units tiered at affordable and market rates. [ph]
Chris Pallister and his small, devoted crew are leading the largest ongoing marine cleanup effort on the planet. Since 2002, Pallister’s organization, Gulf of Alaska Keeper, has been actively cleaning beaches in Prince William Sound and the Northern Gulf Coast. The nonprofit’s five boats, seasonal crew of 12 and dozens of regular volunteers has removed an estimated 2.5 million pounds of marine debris (mostly plastic items washed ashore from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) from more than 1,500 miles of coastline. [ph]
Utah set the ambitious goal to end homelessness in 2015. As the state’s decade-long “Housing First” program, an initiative to place the homeless into supportive housing without any prerequisites, wraps up this year, it’s already reduced chronic homelessness (those with deeper disabling conditions, like substance abuse or schizophrenia, who had been on the streets for a year or longer or four times within three years) by 72 percent and is on track to end it altogether by early next year. Read more about the initiative here. [ph]
New Orleans native Burnell Cotlon wants to feed his 3,000 neighbors. So he’s turned a two-story building that was destroyed by catastrophic flooding during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (along with most of the Lower 9th Ward community) into a shopping plaza. Already, he’s opened a barbershop, a convenience store, and a full-service grocery store in a neighborhood that has been identified as a food desert. [ph]
“They had our backs, let’s keep the shirts on theirs” is more than just a motto for Mark Doyle. It’s the business model on which he built Rags of Honor, his silk-screen printing company based in Chicago that provides employment and other services to veterans. In the three years since its inception, Rags of Honor has grown from four employees to 22, all but one of whom are veterans at high risk of homelessness. [ph]
After promising to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal our planet during his 2008 campaign, President Barack Obama has faltered on environmental legislation during his first term, preferring to expend his political capital on the Affordable Care Act. But the 44th president’s use of regulatory authority and his agreement with China likely ensure his place in the pantheon of modern environmental champions. Here’s why. [ph]

Watch Our Video Interview with the St. Bernard Project

Husband and wife Zack Rosenburg and Liz McCartney traveled from Washington, D.C. to to New Orleans just a few months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in August 2005. Little did they know how the trip would change their lives, inspiring them to start an organization that would help this city and several others rebuild their homes and communities.
In March 2006, the couple launched the St. Bernard Project (SBP), which has gone from a team of three volunteers to a national network of AmeriCorps members who carry out this celebrated model for disaster recovery.
As part of a series of Google Hangouts On Air featuring service opportunities, NationSwell interviewed Rosenburg along with a current SBP fellow and an alum of the program. Click above to watch the full video. The conversation focuses on the work of more than 100,000 St. Bernard Project volunteers across cities including New Orleans, Joplin, Mo.; Staten Island, N.Y.; Rockaway, N.Y; and Monmouth County, N.J.
What do you want to ask the SBP team? Let us know in the comments below or tweet @nationswell using the #serviceyear.
In the meantime, click the Take Action button to learn how you can join NationSwell and The Franklin Project to spread the word on service year opportunities.

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

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.”