A Major US City Is Very Close To Ending Homelessness For All Its Vets

December 20th 2014

Mike Vainisi

New Orleans is about to eliminate homelessness among the city's military veterans.

The ambitious goal will be reached when homeless veterans move into 40 apartments inside a new, mixed-use housing complex. UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a coalition of 63 community organizations is spearheading this effort. When formerly homeless veterans move into the units, the city will have reached its goal of having housed all 193 homeless veterans it identified two years ago. To qualify for the housing, which is located in a former school building on Canal St., veterans need to have an income that's half of the median income in the city.

New Orleans' effort is part of First Lady Michelle Obama's "Mayors Challenge," which aims to end veterans homelessness nationally by the end of 2015. The initiative, run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), asks cities to take a "housing-first" approach by eliminating common barriers to government-assisted housing. Common barriers include sobriety tests or the completion of drug programs. HUD says that prerequisites are self-defeating and that quickly getting homeless people into housing leads to higher rates of housing retention. In Utah, for instance, a "housing first" model also yielded impressive results: a 72% decrease in chronic homelessness from 2005. The premise is built on giving people the basic right of shelter to encourage them to make positive lifestyle changes, as opposed to rewarding them with shelter if (and only if) they suddenly decide to eschew their addictions.

Homelessness in New Orleans, generally, is a particularly poignant issue given the staggering amount people who were left homeless after Hurricane Katrina. 

“There is a sense of urgency here that you don’t find in other communities just because we’ve all been homeless,” said Martha Kegel, director of UNITY, to Think Progress. “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.”

New Orleans will join two other cities that have announced to have eliminated homelessness among veterans: Salt Lake City and Phoenix, which reached this goal last December, housing 222 homeless veterans who were identified in 2011.

The federal government is fighting veterans homelessness as part of a greater mission to end all homelessness by 2020. So far, homelessness is down 10% nationally since 2010, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Veterans homelessness is down 30% over that period.

To learn more about a "housing first" approach to homelessness, watch this video.