Spotlight Exclusives

Veterans of New Orleans Break Free from Homelessness

Laura McKnight Laura McKnight, posted on

After spending six years on active duty with the Army, Randy Joiner, 56, said he struggled to find consistent work in his native city of New Orleans. He sometimes found temporary work in security or construction, but was still living in a Salvation Army shelter when Hurricane Katrina hit.

After Katrina, he lived with a friend until the post-storm construction boom dwindled, sending him to a series of other friends’ couches and emergency shelters.

Similarly, Air Force veteran, Charles Oldstein, spent years living in shopping center parking lots in New Orleans and begging for money to survive.

Ending Veterans Homelessness

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu stood before a crowd at the city’s World War II Museum on the Fourth of July, 2014, and issued a surprising declaration: New Orleans would end veteran homelessness by the end of the year.

It seemed an impossible dream. No community had ever accomplished any such feat — eradicating homelessness among any particular group of residents — and the deadline was daunting, particularly for a city that had not seen a model of bureaucratic efficiency.

But it happened. Over the next six months, staffers and volunteers with UNITY of Greater New Orleans, the lead of a collaborative including about 60 governmental and nonprofit groups, scrambled and strained and succeeded to find homes for vets like Joiner and Oldstein. The city not only made history but did so an entire year ahead of the deadline set by then First Lady Michelle Obama in her challenge to U.S. mayors to find housing for the country’s homeless veterans.

Charles Oldstein, 59, a New Orleans native and U.S. Air Force veteran, met the federal definition of chronically homeless, sometimes living in parking lots and other outdoor areas. Oldstein’s case manager through Volunteers of America found him panhandling at a New Orleans intersection, surrounded by insects, in June of this year (2019). Within the next month, Oldstein moved into permanent housing. Photography by Laura McKnight.

Five years later, New Orleans continues to keep veteran homelessness at a “functional zero”: veterans living on the street, in abandoned buildings or in emergency shelter must be placed in permanent housing in an average of 30 days unless they refuse. The city has met this definition for nearly five straight years — with the exception of a week in which the average hit 30.5 days, a half-day above the city’s strict standard, even amid an affordable housing crisis. Every other week, the average has held at 30 or below, regularly dropping to 15 to 17 days.

Oldstein’s journey from the streets to a home took less than a month, streamlined by the city’s improved process for housing veterans and the support of his Volunteers of America case manager.

“The future is brighter when you are rooted,” Oldstein said.

New Orleans is succeeding – but across the country, homelessness among veterans remains a significant and heartbreaking problem. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 40,056 veterans are homeless on any given night. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that about 1.4 million other veterans are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.

So in addition making sure local veterans always have access to housing, New Orleans has become a model for how other cities can approach the problem.

New Orleans’ experience “definitely helped the whole country figure this out,” said Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans.

Urgency, Creativity, and a Dogged Focus

Kegel and other key leaders in the initiative cite urgency, creativity, and focus as the overall drivers of the city’s success. Landrieu, son of former Mayor Moon Landrieu and brother of former Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, was described as “relentless” in his pursuit of the goal, and others became just as single-minded.

Though innovative, the New Orleans Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness also built upon existing resources, partnerships, and strategies, many of them developed to counter a housing landscape ravaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

The storms destroyed or severely damaged 70 percent of all occupied units in the city, prompting UNITY and other groups to plead directly to the U.S. Congress for 3,000 Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) vouchers, most of which went to the greater New Orleans area. The number of New Orleans area residents in Permanent Supportive Housing rose from 519 in 2005 to 1,285 in 2009 to 3,462 in 2019.

Additionally, federal and local agencies had shifted to a Housing First model, a philosophy that prioritizes getting people into permanent, affordable housing as a foundation for life improvement, without requiring people to meet conditions or address issues like behavioral health as a prerequisite. Other key strategies in place included: client choice (allowing people options in housing); the use of housing navigators to guide people through the process of acquiring a home; housing locators (who build relationships with landlords willing to accept housing vouchers); and an advisory group of military representatives who helped Landrieu develop policy.

Some of these initiatives stemmed from the city’s adoption of goals and strategies in President Obama’s “Opening Doors,” which included the 25 Cities Initiative and others aimed at ending veteran homelessness in particular. Partly due to these veteran-focused initiatives, by 2011, UNITY and its partners had begun working more closely with the VA on eradicating veteran homelessness. The collaboration between the VA and city officials led New Orleans in 2013 to establish the nation’s first — and only — Community Resource and Referral Center (CRRC) that serves both veterans and non-veterans. New Orleans later opened a low-barrier shelter, serving both veterans and non-veterans, above the CRRC. Both Sam Joel, a Landrieu policy advisor who helped lead the initiative, and Fernando O. Rivera, director of the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System, say sharing such resources benefits homeless veterans by bringing a variety of community services under one roof.

“You don’t get these results in a city, especially a city like ours, unless people are willing to commit for the long-term, and they’re willing to be inclusive of everyone who can contribute,” Rivera said. “The ability to help homeless veterans largely relies on the organization’s ability to connect with the community.”

At the local level, Landrieu had also begun working with UNITY and its partners to create a 10-year plan to end homelessness.

“With that leadership in place and with the strong relationships we’ve built over the previous years, we were really able to hit the ground running,” Joel said in a 2015 webinar intended to encourage other cities to end veteran homelessness.

Kegel, in the same webinar, noted among the city’s strengths a set of strategies and partnerships forged through the shared experience of homelessness post-Katrina. Rivera agreed, noting the VA had to rebuild its New Orleans hospital, and VA staff were among those who lost their homes, generating an empathy for the homeless.

“You learn what it means to have, and then to lose everything,” he said.

However, despite major drops in overall homelessness (between 2007 and 2014, New Orleans had reduced overall homelessness by 83 percent), the city still held one of the highest per capita rates of veteran homelessness in the country. That problem still needed a specific solution.

What Does it Mean to End Veteran Homelessness?

Agencies define “homelessness,” “veteran” and “ending veteran homelessness” in many different ways.

In undertaking the Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, UNITY of Greater New Orleans and its partners had to first define each of those terms in regard to the local initiative.

Leaders opted for a broad definition of veteran, including anyone who had served in the military regardless of branch or type of discharge.

The initiative’s leaders decided to narrow the focus on a particular subset of homeless veterans: those living outside, in abandoned buildings or other places not intended for human habitation, or in emergency shelter. The initiative did not include veterans in transitional housing.

The terminology and definitions used to describe “ending homelessness” vary by agency and locale. The US Interagency Council on Homelessness, which certifies cities as having ended veteran homelessness, applies a similar definition — but uses an average of 90 days or less instead of 30.

New Orleans’ definition may be the most stringent nationwide: Every newly discovered veteran living on the streets or in emergency shelter is provided permanent housing within an average of 30 days of finding them, unless they choose to enter a longer-term treatment program instead.

 ‘The Mayor Wants You to Move Today’

In analyzing what went right with the New Orleans effort, both national and local leaders cite Landrieu’s passion as a key ingredient. Rivera said that on his first day at work in New Orleans in January 2015, he was summoned to Landrieu’s office to discuss, in part, veteran homelessness.

It was Landrieu himself who prodded the last two homeless veterans into being housed at the tail end of the initiative. The veterans said they wanted housing but seemed nervous about actually moving, which is why the initiative stretched a bit past 2014 to Jan. 2, 2015, Kegel said.

The veterans kept coming up with reasons why they couldn’t actually move in, she said, “so finally, we had to say to them look, the Mayor wants you to move today.” It worked.

Landrieu’s choice of a panic-inducing deadline, announced in a “very public” setting, with news cameras rolling, proved critical, according to Kegel and others.

“We couldn’t have done this without the deadline,” she said.

The deadline pressure stoked urgency and innovation, Kegel said, helping the VA to come up with new ways of opening the lines of communication and dropping the turnaround for vital information — verification of veteran status and eligibility for VA programs — from taking several days or weeks to getting done in 24 hours. Determining veteran status and eligibility for VA housing forms one of the first steps in determining an individual veteran’s housing plan. Mark Johnston, a former longtime leader of HUD’s homeless program who now runs his own consulting firm, described the expedited information turnaround as a “game-changer” in quickly housing veterans in a 2015 report.

The campaign’s leaders looked to the city’s military community for help, recruiting 150 veterans and active-duty military to help scour the streets and comb tent cities in search of their comrades. Landrieu convened dozens of local landlords, imploring them to work with the Housing Authority of New Orleans to offer homes to veterans.

UNITY staff conducted pre-inspections of housing to speed the process, with workers making swift adjustments to apartments and calling safety inspectors to the same location two or three times a day, to get housing — including a refurbished former convent and school — approved for new occupants.

UNITY also introduced the master list, a tool updated daily to include newly identified homeless veterans and track each veteran’s progress toward permanent housing. UNITY’s research director worked into the night retrieving fresh data from the city’s emergency shelters on homeless veterans, ensuring newly identified vets could begin the path to housing the next day.

Organizers also placed an emphasis on housing navigators, who guided each veteran through the myriad steps to a home, from “accompanying veterans to get a birth certificate” to “driving them to look at different apartments,” according to Johnston’s report.

Weekly meetings among leadership proved crucial in correcting any snags in the process, as there was no blueprint for the process.

“They were creating the solution as they were going,” Johnston said. “They were just adjusting as they go.”

The deadline bearing down, the collaborative’s leaders hustled and sweated their way to bureaucracy-bending solutions, mixing available resources in unorthodox ways and stretching red tape until every veteran found a home.

The Clock Ticks on the Challenge

The mercury in a giant thermometer, a graphic depicting the campaign’s progress, hovered and then rose, eventually shooting to 227, the number of veterans housed during the challenge process. As the mercury climbed, the number of homeless veterans dove to “functional zero,” a concept created to define and strike a moving target.

New Orleans veterans cited a lack of stable employment as a major factor in their chronic homelessness.

Randy Joiner, once homeless, had to clear myriad hoops to find new homes; such hoops are tougher to jump without stable housing. With the help of case managers and social workers for Volunteers of America, Joiner and Oldstein were able to get a state ID, needed to restore their Social Security Disability Insurance benefits.

Securing the state ID can be trickier without a home address, Oldstein noted.

Homeless veterans require various agencies working together at all levels to help with employment, healthcare and other necessities to maintaining stability.

“It doesn’t just work because everybody does their part; we really have to do our parts together,” Rivera said.

Randy Joiner, 56, a New Orleans native and U.S. Army veteran, spent years living on friends’ couches and in emergency shelters before finding a home in 2012. Joiner credits his case manager with helping him to quickly work through the process of gaining a housing voucher intended to help homeless veterans. “I depend on her more than family,” he said. On-the-ground roles like these, especially housing locators and housing navigators, played an important role in the 2014 campaign to end veteran homelessness. Photography by Laura McKnight.

To provide enough housing, the campaign had to temporarily commandeer a large share of housing resources beyond resources intended specifically for veterans. This included 200 housing vouchers through the Housing Authority of New Orleans. During the campaign, the Continuum of Care committed the bulk of its Permanent Supportive Housing slots to homeless veterans.

“You won’t have to do that very often once you get to functional zero, but this is what it takes to get there,” Kegel said.

Local leaders also worked with federal administrators to mix and match VA and Continuum of Care housing services, patchworking programs in ways that best helped individual veterans.

With adjustments, short-term programs for homeless veterans, such as Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF), can better function as bridges to permanent housing for veterans in need.

For example, Oldstein moved into his apartment in July with help from SSVF while waiting for his permanent housing voucher.

Who Are Homeless Veterans?

In New Orleans, homeless veterans tended to be older and sicker than the general homeless population. They had also spent more time without a home than the general homeless population. Of those housed during the Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness:

  • 90% were male, and 10% were female.
  • 61% were black, 35% were white, and 2% were Hispanic/Latino.
  • 43% were ages 50-50, and 25% were ages 60 and up.
  • 50% received an Honorable Discharge from the military, while 48% received a General or Other Discharge and 2% had received a Dishonorable Discharge.
  • At least 75% had a disability.
  • 59% were homeless for a year or more, with at least 53% meeting the federal definition of chronic homelessness (someone with a mental or physical disability living on the streets or in emergency shelter for more than a year). Nationally, about 15% of the overall homeless population meets the definition of chronic homelessness.
  • 52% were living on the streets, in abandoned buildings or in other places not intended for human habitation, while 48% were living in emergency shelters.

A Model for Other Cities

As challenging as it was to end veteran homelessness, Kegel says she’s much prouder that the New Orleans collaborative has maintained its “functional zero” for nearly five years.

The Continuum of Care, still led by UNITY of Greater New Orleans, continues to hold monthly leadership meetings and street outreach involving military members, along with coordinating with the VA to ensure speedy determination of veteran status. UNITY’s research director still regularly updates the master list of homeless veterans, and a group called the Homeless Veteran Navigators Group meets weekly to help house veterans.

Veterans say their case managers, provided through the VA and other organizations, have played essential roles in their lives.

Tim Cortelyou, 71, of Metairie, who served over a year in the Vietnam War while in the U.S. Army, describes his case manager as “a godsend” who helped him move into an apartment in January of this year.

“Really, I’ve never been happier,” Cortelyou said.

Joiner said his case manager played a critical role in getting him into his apartment in 2012.

“I depend on her more than family,” Joiner said.

Oldstein often turns to Eugene for advice, keeping her number handy on his refrigerator.

“He is one of my favorite clients, because I saw where he came from,” Eugene said.

Oldstein recalled a low point on the streets, when he had soiled himself and had no way to change or wash his clothes.

His experience underscores First Lady Michelle Obama’s push to consider housing veterans a moral issue.

“This is our duty to house them, this is our privilege to house them,” Kegel said.

Additionally, Kegel said, creating such a template for housing veterans would benefit other subpopulations of homeless people, such as homeless families and the chronically homeless.

Other cities and communities take inspiration from New Orleans’ success, with organizations from across the country contacting Kegel for guidance.

Robert Pulster, regional coordinator for the National Initiatives Team with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), said USICH has highlighted New Orleans’ work as a model for others.

Johnston, who oversaw HUD’s Homelessness Programs for about 30 years, now runs a consulting firm that helps cities nationwide eradicate veteran and chronic homelessness. “I use New Orleans a lot when I’m coaching other cities,” he said.

Veteran homelessness in the U.S. has been chopped in half since 2010, with nearly 80 communities having met the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness’s definition of ending veteran homelessness. Now, cities are targeting other homeless subpopulations, Johnston said.
Communities often begin with ending veteran homelessness, using VA resources to boost the effort, and then use their experience ending veteran homelessness to eradicate homelessness among other vulnerable groups, Johnston said.

Not to be left behind, New Orleans’ Continuum of Care is targeting other homeless populations, including the chronically homeless and homeless families (those with underage children).

In May 2016, UNITY and its partners reached a milestone for ending family homelessness: the New Orleans area became the first community known to have reduced the average length of time that families with children spend homeless to 41 days or less. The federal standard is 45 days, Kegel said.

“So we’re the first community that we know of that’s below that, too,” Kegel said.

Laura McKnight of Thibodaux, La., has covered topics from major hurricanes and coastal land loss to alligator hunts and the New Orleans nightlife scene.

This article is the part of the “Poverty Next Door”  series published in partnership with Microsoft News.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives