All New Orleans' Homeless Veterans Now Have Homes, Just As The City Promised, & The World Isn't So Bad After All

CHICAGO - SEPTEMBER 30: A homeless, disabled veteran in his wheelchair is surrounded by pedestrians as he is looking for money along the shopping area known as the 'Magnificent Mile' on Michigan Ave. September 30, 2004 in Chicago. Chicago alderman are looking into an ordinance restricting areas of panhandling in the city. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
Source: Tim Boyle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Less than six months after New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu committed to end homelessness among New Orleans' veterans, the city rang in the New Year by placing its 227th veteran in an apartment, taking him off the streets and fulfilling its promise a year ahead of schedule. New Orleans is one of more than 300 municipalities that have taken up First Lady Michelle Obama’s call to get homeless veterans off the streets and into secure homes by the end of 2015. 

While other cities have successfully found accommodations for vets struggling with homeless vets, the Crescent City is the first major urban area to effectively dismantle homelessness among its former servicemen, setting an example for cities nationwide.

The first lady began the Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness on July 4, 2014 to address the nation’s surging problem with homeless veterans. As of 2014, some 50,000 former service personnel were attempting to get by on the streets, many of who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues from their service.

Landrieu is one of more than 300 mayors to sign on to the challenge, along with six governors and 71 other local officials. Putting resources and time towards getting our veterans off the streets is not a policy issue, Landrieu told MSNBC in January, but a moral one:

We always say that we aren’t going to leave a soldier on the battlefield. We have a moral imperative not to leave him on the streets of America either.
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Landrieu wanted to get the job done faster than 2015. To that effect, the city jumpstarted a private-public coalition effort that involved all local, state and federal government as well as local nonprofits. This “all hands on deck” model worked to sweep the city to identify homeless vets, to check their records with the Veteran’s Administration, and to put together a series of housing vouchers and rent grants to find them apartments around the city. Many of the teams that swept the city streets looking for vets were current or former members of the armed services themselves.

"We've found you can't overestimate the power of brothers and sisters in arms reaching out to these folks on the streets," said Sam Joel, Landrieu’s policy advisor, NOLA's website reports.

To fill some of the low-income housing shortage, the city of New Orleans donated $1.2 million to develop the old Sacred Heart convent into a combination of low-income housing and apartments for the chronically homeless. Run by the anti-homelessness nonprofit, UNITY, the Sacred Heart complex opened in mid-December, taking dozens of homeless vets off the streets and putting them into their own apartments. As part of complex’s offerings, the Catholic Charities and the VA will offer mental health services, job training and case management support.

As Landrieu and city officials note, the city’s population of homeless veterans has reached what they call a “functional zero.” There is no way to guarantee that another homeless vet won’t end up in New Orleans or that a previously housed veteran ends up out on the streets. To ensure that vets don’t continue to slip through the cracks, the city has developed a rapid-action response program to identify and place any new arrivals into apartments within 30 days.

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UNITY Executive Director Martha Kegel is optimistic that the rapid-response program will keep the initiative sustainable. In a statement, she said:

We can’t say that no veteran is ever going to be homeless again. But what we can say is that we are not going to have veterans living as homeless for very long.

Homelessness has posed a special problem for New Orleans. Since Hurricane Katrina decimated the city’s neighborhoods and sent the area’s chronically homeless population skyrocketing up from about 2,000 to more than 11,600 people, city officials have worked hard to take care of its homeless population. They are starting to see their efforts pay off: New Orleans had 4,579 chronically homeless individuals on the streets in 2009, but only counted 677 in 2013.

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The project has not been simple. But New Orleans has proven that homelessness is not an intractable problem for any population, says Ann Oliva, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for special needs, reports Christian Scince Monitor.

There’s been a lot of skepticism as to whether this is a problem that we can actually solve and I think that [New Orleans] is a proof point for us as a nation that this is something that can actually be done.

Other urban areas, of course, face more daunting numbers of homeless vets. According to January 2014 headcount, advocates found 1,645 former military personnel living on the streets in Los Angeles and a whopping 3,739 in New York City.

But Laura Zeilinger, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told she Christian Science Monitor she's confident that similar coalition efforts can make inroads on bringing down what had grown into a national crisis:

The solutions that work for veterans are the solutions that work for all people. The problem is absolutely solvable when we invest in the practices that we know work.

Nationwide, the number of homeless people has fallen by 17 percent over the past nine years. But we still have far to go: according to national estimates, up to 600,000 people have nowhere to sleep at night in the U.S. and instead are forced to hunker down in emergency shelters or under bridges.

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For now, 227 people are no longer out on the streets, braving the elements and wondering if they will wake up safe in the morning. Merlin Verrett and his wife, Vanessa, were two of the new residents to move into the new Sacred Heart complex after more than nine years fending for themselves without a stable home. The couple, who both suffer from bipolar disease, lost their house to Katrina and have not been able to scrape together enough from their fixed incomes to replace it since.

Now, the city has come to the their aid. As Verrett told The Times-Picayune:

To be a veteran and serve your country and to be out there on the streets in New Orleans after the storm was very hard. But God is good. He brought me here. I'm comfortable and I'm stress free now. I got people around me that care.

Images: Getty Images (3) 

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