NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA — While serving with the Army in Afghanistan, Donald C. recalls, he narrowly missed the explosion of a suicide bomb because his unit was running behind schedule. If he had been on time, the 28-year-old veteran said, he would have died. Instead, he and his unit helped to put Afghan nationals who were killed into body bags.
The experience compounded the post-traumatic stress disorder he was already suffering during his two deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2011, he made the difficult decision to leave the military and return to New Orleans, a city less than 25 miles from his hometown of Destrehan, Louisiana.
But the city he returned to was not as welcoming of an eight-year veteran as he had expected. Unable to hold a job or afford an apartment, Donald has spent the last three years rotating between sleeping outside the public library, under bridges and occasionally in the city’s small number of emergency shelters.
“You went from being a hero to being just like everybody else. Hell, worse in some ways because that hero stuff only flies for so long after you get back until it’s like ‘alright, get out of my way bum,’” Donald told ThinkProgress while sitting in the waiting area of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Community Resource and Referral Center, where he goes regularly to shower and meet with case workers. A camouflage backpack—once used to hold his military gear, but now carrying all of his possessions—sat at his feet.
“I just didn’t think it’d be this hard after getting out,” Donald said, wiping away tears as he spoke about the shame he associates with asking for help. “I thought people would be lined up trying to give me a job seeing that I already proved that— they say it’s the toughest job in America, and I did that for eight years. That don’t go far on applications.”
But this week, Donald may be able to store some of those possessions in a safe, dry space. He is slated to move into a new apartment development when it opens this Saturday. The building, a former Catholic school on Canal Street which has been shuttered since Hurricane Katrina, is a project of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a coalition of 63 organizations which provide housing and services to the homeless.
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Although there are still approximately 2,000 homeless men and women in New Orleans, Donald was prioritized for a one-bedroom unit in the new building because of the city’s push to house all of its homeless veterans by the end of 2014, a year before the goal established by Michelle Obama in her “Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness” announced in the spring.
The opening of the 109 apartments in the mixed-use Sacred Heart apartment building this weekend will include around 40 units for formerly homeless veterans, helping UNITY to meet its goal. While the group has made steady progress on finding homes for the 193 homeless veterans identified in the count in the beginning of the year, the effort has ignored many chronically homeless and others sleeping on the street, a UNITY outreach worker said.
But UNITY said it has plans to tackle other homeless populations in 2015, and for this year its focus has been on those with a history of military service—a population especially prone to homelessness.
“You look at these stats that say one out of four homeless are vets,” Donald said. “It seems like sometimes the odds are stacked against you.”
‘We’ve all been homeless’
After Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in August 2005, more than 455,000 people were displaced from New Orleans and neighboring parishes and 70 percent of housing in the city was damaged.
Martha Kegel, the director of UNITY who has previously worked as an attorney, reporter and the director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said she has not slept a full night since the city decided to end veterans’ homelessness a year before the national goal. In between meetings at UNITY’s office, Kegel told ThinkProgress she was immediately on-board with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s plan to prioritize the housing of homeless veterans.
“Everybody in New Orleans is very competitive and especially our mayor,” she said. “Ever since Katrina, we want to show that we can do things that are impossible over and over again.”
When the weakened storm hit land on August 29, it seemed like New Orleans had escaped the catastrophic damage that had been predicted. But then the levees protecting the city broke. In the days and weeks that followed, 80 percent of the city was flooded, with the worst parts sitting 15 feet under water. The VA medical hospital, located not far from the Superdome, was buried in at least six feet of water and had to be torn down. In total, seven of the city’s 16 hospitals were knocked out for more than two years. Although the state ordered an evacuation, the Louisiana Department of Health estimates that 1,464 people lost their lives and other estimates put the number significantly higher.
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos
“There is a sense of urgency here that you don’t find in other communities just because we’ve all been homeless,” Kegel said. “We’ve all tasted maybe a tiny slice of it, maybe a huge slice of it. Some of our outreach workers have been literally homeless while they were housing homeless people because of Katrina.”
One of those outreach workers is Clarence White, III who told ThinkProgress he swam through six feet of water after the storm to make it to the Superdome and eventually out of the state while his home in the Gentilly neighborhood flooded. White, who was displaced from his home for four years, works directly with dozens of clients but is familiar with many more. He seemed to recognize every homeless or formerly homeless person as he drove a ThinkProgress reporter around New Orleans, pointing out encampments under highway overpasses and abandoned buildings that have become home to many.
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
After Katrina, homelessness nearly doubled in the city even though only 80 percent of the homeless population returned after the storm. In January 2007, the first count conducted after the storm, there were 11,619 people living on the streets, in abandoned buildings or emergency shelters. For the first time in 2014, that number is back to pre-Katrina levels.
While next August will mark the ten-year anniversary of the storm, White — and many other New Orleans residents who spoke with ThinkProgress — said that the city still hasn’t fully recovered. The number of rental units has been drastically reduced, driving rents higher, and the city’s healthcare and supportive services infrastructure still has not returned to normal. Fifty-five percent of Katrina survivors have suffered from depression or post-traumatic stress.
An identifiable goal
Donald said that going from the military to the outside world was a shock to both him and the people he served with, many of whom are now homeless.
“If you’re in the military you won’t be homeless,” he said. “You’re going to have somewhere to stay. There are so many people who want to help you. But then coming out of the military, the world isn’t like that.”
Since leaving the Army, Donald has lost touch with some of the men he served with because he said he is not proud of his current situation and still feels shame associated with leaving the service. “We were soldiers but I’m not a soldier no more,” he said. “I barely feel like a person sometimes. So I really don’t like to talk to them and I don’t like to tell them the severity of my situation when I do talk to them. I don’t like to tell nobody that.”
At the beginning of this year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that there were 49,933 homeless veterans in America, down 33 percent from 2010. Two years ago, UNITY counted 570 homeless veterans, but the city had already been making progress and has reduced the population by 66 percent since 2012.
While New Orleans won’t be the first city to effectively end veteran homelessness – both Phoenix and Salt Lake City have claimed they have housed all of their chronically homeless veterans – it would likely be the most blighted city to meet the goal. Other cities haven’t been affected by devastating storms like Katrina, which destroyed much of the city’s affordable housing and caused rents in New Orleans to increase 45 percent since 2005.
Phoenix followed the Housing First strategy in which it provided homeless veterans with a home before worrying about other issues like mental illness and addiction. The model works best in cities where there is cheap land on which to build.
“Any number of veterans left out in the cold is too many, but those numbers show us that even in some of our largest metropolitan areas, ending veteran homelessness is eminently achievable,” Michelle Obama said in a July op-ed for McClatchy.
After the federal government announced the nationwide initiative — which 182 local leaders have signed on to — Kegel said New Orleans knew it had the infrastructure in place to meet the goal early. UNITY has been able to use both its post-Katrina strategies and new initiatives to find homes for veterans at a rapid rate.
But one of the problems with housing homeless people, White said, is that they are not always easy to find when they are needed for the paperwork required to move them into a home. That’s why UNITY has rented out a block of hotel rooms at a cheap motel in the city to temporarily house a number of veterans until their permanent housing becomes available.
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Matthew O’Brien, a 70-year-old veteran who suffers from depression and serious mental disabilities, served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam for two years in the late 1960s. Before UNITY moved him into the Midtown Hotel—a place he calls “lonely and quiet”—he had been frequently sleeping at the Ozanam Inn emergency homeless shelter.
His room at the motel is cluttered with various objects he’s collected from the street, including a handful of bracelets adorning his arm which read “BFF” and “Report Bullying.” He held a Barbie doll—also a street find—which he called his girlfriend while stroking her hair and pointing out her bright blue eyes. “Look at her, she’s gorgeous,” he told ThinkProgress, pausing to take a swig from a bottle of vodka while holding the doll in his other hand. “I know you think I’m nuts.”
“I miss my bed at the Oz,” he said. “I was used to being at the Ozanam Inn all the time but now I’m over here. It’s private. I like it.” Although O’Brien is still adjusting to his home in the motel—a situation he doesn’t completely understand is temporary—he will also be moving into UNITY’s Sacred Heart building when it opens later this week.
Playing Chinese Checkers with the homeless
Housing almost 200 homeless veterans in a year took some creativity. Because New Orleans doesn’t receive any city or state benefits to help the homeless, the city has only limited federal subsidies to work with. Many smaller cities in the U.S. are in similar situations, so New Orleans’ approach has the potential to be applied across the country.
UNITY’s approached involved creating new housing projects and coming up with rent subsidies and vouchers to put towards housing people in the traditional rental market. The group prioritized housing vouchers—provided by both the city and the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program—to those coming directly from the street who need the supportive services that are attached to the vouchers, including visits from case managers.
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
The new approach also involves moving people who no longer need supportive services to programs that only provide housing.
“If we’re not really sure if someone is disabled but we just need to get them housed fast, we can put them into an apartment… using rapid rehousing money over a year or so,” Kegel said. “If they really need permanent supportive housing, we’ll move them over. We’ll be playing a lot of Chinese Checkers.”
Both HUD and the VA have given UNITY the green light on moving veterans from one program to another. In response to the success of New Orleans’ initiative, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness published a list of advice on how New Orleans could be a model for other cities.
“Most communities are like New Orleans where you don’t have state or local money or not much of it, so you’re really reliant on your federal resources,” Kegel said. “You need to figure out how to sequence the federal resources in a way that makes sense. When you’re up against a deadline—which everyone will be up against next year—you’re going to need to figure out how to move people.”
Desiree Nunez is one veteran who has benefited from the collaboration between agencies and programs. Nunez and her two daughters were evicted from their New Orleans East apartment in October when her ex-husband stopped paying child support.
For the first month, her seven and 14-year-old daughters stayed with her friend while Nunez slept in her van. Unable to find or hold a job because of her social phobias and severe depression, Nunez thought her only hope was securing Social Security disability benefits and is in the process of appealing her denial.
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
But through her therapist, Nunez was connected with a UNITY staff member who realized she could help when she learned about Nunez’s military service.
“One time I heard her say something about how they’re only helping veterans and so I was like, well I don’t know if this matters but I was in the reserve one time,” said Nunez, who served for around eight years as a secretary in the Navy reserve. “And she was like, that counts!”
UNITY connected Nunez with Volunteers of America, the VA’s largest housing contractor, which was able to secure rental assistance for Nunez and her daughters to move back into an apartment in their former building.
“I’m so excited,” she said, her bright blue eyeliner smearing as her eyes watered. “I chose a place close to my daughter’s school so that I don’t have to disrupt her from her school and someplace we know the neighborhood.”
A functional zero
While it may seem easy enough to find homes for the 193 homeless veterans identified in New Orleans this year, Kegel said that ending veterans’ homelessness is actually a more complicated goal.
“Of course you understand that going forward, it’s not like no one is ever going to become homeless again, but it’s about having a rapid response system in place so that the number of veterans who are in homelessness at any given point is never more than what you can house that month.”
Maintaining a “functional zero,” as Kegel called it, will require a triage-style response to homelessness resembling a hospital emergency room which deals with the most vulnerable first, but also cannot overlook anyone. This approach stands in stark contrast to UNITY’s pre-Katrina model of allowing agencies to house those people most likely to be counted as success stories.
It may also require housing fewer than the 193 homeless veterans because some might not actually be veterans — so they will lose their fast-track to housing — and some may resolve their homelessness on their own, Kegel said.
“There are going to be veterans falling into homelessness as long as we have an affordable housing crisis,” Kegel said. “But we’re going to continue to prioritize them and make sure they get housed first and at the same time, we’re going to be going back to the task we’ve been working on all along of seriously reducing chronic homelessness and hoping that we can end that a year early as well.”
The federal initiative to end veteran homelessness by 2015 is just part of a larger push to eliminate homelessness overall by 2020.
UNITY will also have to ensure veterans are able to acclimate to life in an apartment, a transition that’s not always easy for people accustomed to living on the streets. As White drove a ThinkProgress reporter around New Orleans, he pointed out a man panhandling on a highway median. “He’s one of my clients. He’s housed,” White said. “I don’t know if that’s habitual or what.”
White also identified chronically homeless people sleeping in tents under highways who he cannot help this year because of the focus on veterans. But Kegel said the next goal will to make sure the populations left out this year are given equal assistance.
“All of this is part of helping the city recover and making sure the most vulnerable people in our community have housing,” she said. “After what we’ve gone through and seeing all the disabled and poor and elderly people left behind and not even evacuated and left to die, it’s like we are just determined that we’re going to get everybody housed and the job’s not done until we get everybody housed.”