As part of his remarks last week at NLC’s Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C., President Obama thanked city leaders for stepping forward and joining the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. Echoing the President, HUD Secretary Julián Castro thanked city officials for their partnership and leadership, citing the recent announcement by the city of New Orleans as the latest proof that the goal of ending veteran homelessness in 2015 is achievable. (photos: Jason Dixson)
Building on the success of Phoenix and Salt Lake City in ending chronic veteran homelessness, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced in January that the city had achieved the goal of the Mayors Challenge and reached functional zero on homelessness among all veterans.
In making the announcement, Mayor Landrieu said, “Six months ago on Independence Day, we came together to pay homage to our service members and veterans who courageously serve our great nation, and announced our goal to effectively end veteran homelessness in New Orleans by the end of 2014. I am honored and very pleased to report that we have housed 227 veterans, exceeding our goal of 193, thanks to the hard work of our committed partners. 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.”
To help disseminate some of the best practices from New Orleans, the city’s work has been highlighted during joint NLC/HUD regional forums in support of the Mayors Challenge. According to city officials, there were several key elements that led them to this historic accomplishment:
Mayor Landrieu was one of the first mayors to join the Mayors Challenge. His support of the work was translated into daily engagement thanks to a dedicated staff person. The mayor’s focus resulted in specific challenges being identified and pursed relentlessly.
For example, in response to service gaps identified by community partners, the city committed HOME Investment Partnership resources to pay for rental assistance and to help with the development of permanent supportive housing. Mayor Landrieu’s leadership also served as a catalyst for other elements of success, such as:
Central to the success in New Orleans was the coordinated teamwork of all community partners. Joining the city in the effort were public and private partners from the local, state and federal levels.
Locally, the 63 partner agencies and service providers that are part of the Continuum of Care, including UNITY of Greater New Orleans, were critical allies. In addition, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, Housing Authority of New Orleans, Downtown Development District, and the New Orleans Interagency Council were key partners. These stakeholders joined forces with officials from federal partners at HUD, Veterans Affairs and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) as well as leaders from organizations such as Community Solutions, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and The Home Depot Foundation.
- Access to affordable housing
Collectively, these partners enacted a local strategy to provide all veterans with access to permanent housing and supportive services. In the face of housing shortages faced by most major metropolitan areas, caused by rising rents and low vacancy rates, housing solutions in New Orleans have been further complicated by the on-going recovery from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, which flooded 80 percent of the city.
One way the community identified housing for veterans was through direct landlord engagement. Mayor Landrieu sent a letter to all landlords currently contracting with the city and the housing authority. Landlords were invited to a forum to learn more about available housing resources as well as the coordinated collaborations that would partner with them in support of formerly homeless veterans.
In addition, the city’s partnership with the Housing Authority of New Orleans, the local VA, and UNITY of Greater New Orleans resulted in 200 Housing Choice vouchers being designated for veterans no longer in need of HUD-VASH vouchers or other permanent supportive housing programs. This allowed other VASH and supportive housing vouchers to be made available for other homeless veterans.
As the city entered the final stretch of their efforts, a critical number of housing units became available through the Sacred Heart apartment complex. “The Sacred Heart units set us up for success when we needed it most,” said Sam Joel, the Mayor’s Senior Policy Advisor during a recent HUD/NLC Mayors Challenge forum.
Initially built in 1908 as a convent and school, the first of Sacred Heart apartments’ three development phases began accepting tenants in December 2014. When completed, the building will have 109 units, comprised of efficiencies and one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments. 55 units will be prioritized for chronically homeless veterans, with the remaining 54 units being available for households earning less than 50 percent of the area’s median income. As development continues, the building also will have a sunroom, a computer lab, a courtyard area and an on-site parking lot.
The $7.6 million project was made possible by a partnership between The Home Depot Foundation, the City of New Orleans, the State of Louisiana, UNITY of Greater New Orleans, and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. Various local, state and federal affordable housing programs were used to finance the construction of the property, including $1.2 million from the Landrieu administration. The remaining gap in financing was provided by The Home Depot Foundation.
In addition to providing investment capital, the Foundation donated construction supplies, fixtures and other furnishings for the new units. Volunteers of the local Team Depot visited the site to deliver and assemble furniture such as tables, chairs and shelving to ensure the veterans’ new apartments were comfortable enough to call home.
Members of Team Depot assemble furniture for veterans as they move into units at the Sacred Hearts apartments in New Orleans. (photo courtesy of The Home Depot Foundation)
Maintaining Functional Zero
New Orleans joins Salt Lake City and Phoenix in proving that communities can solve an issue once thought to be intractable. New Orleans’ success demonstrates that, with persistent leadership, community collaboration and the determination to identify needed housing, cities can provide housing for all veterans and ensure that future episodes of homelessness are rare, brief and non-recurring.
As the first city to declare they have reached the goal of the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, New Orleans provides precedent for how a city can measure and discuss what it means to “end veteran homelessness.” Attaining this goal has come to be characterized as reaching “functional zero.”
New Orleans defines ending veteran homelessness as ensuring every homeless veteran who can be located is placed in permanent housing or in temporary housing with an identified permanent housing placement.
“Veteran homelessness is an important and challenging issue, and we are very proud of our accomplishment in New Orleans – but the work of ending veteran homelessness is never really done,” said Mayor Landrieu. “That’s why we have also created a new and sustainable rapid response model that combines all available local, state and federal resources with the work of our local active duty and former military personnel – utilizing veterans to help veterans. I hope our model here in New Orleans can be replicated nationwide so that we can end veteran homelessness in America once and for all.”
Veterans and others will always face periods of housing instability. But ensuring homelessness is not perennial is a dramatic change in how our country has addressed homelessness for more than 30 years. New Orleans’ accomplishment – and Mayor Landrieu’s understanding of what functional zero means for his city – provides guidance as other cities move closer to this goal.
About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.