UNITY Coalition Tackles Homelessness in New Orleans
Like many other U.S. cities, New Orleans has had its struggles with sheltering its homeless population, in particular, the chronically homeless. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), someone who is chronically homeless is an individual with a disabling condition who has been homeless for more than a year or has had four episodes of being homeless in the past year. UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a coalition of 60-plus agencies serving the city, found that 2,051 people were chronically homeless in Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parishes during its "Point in Time" survey in 2005.1
But that number soared to 11,619 in 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. An estimated 80 percent of the housing stock was damaged or destroyed by the storm, giving new meaning to homelessness for New Orleanians. In addition, many jobs were lost or suspended due to the storm's impact, critical support such as primary and emergency health care was all but eliminated, and social service agencies themselves were still stabilizing. And then the Great Recession hit.
New Orleans continued to come back during the recession, gaining construction and recovery-related jobs. Many people saw the city as an employment mecca and moved to the area. Unfortunately, when they arrived, work was harder to find than anticipated and housing costs had skyrocketed. From 2005 to 2010, housing costs for New Orleans increased by 45 percent, leaving 61 percent of the population cost-burdened and 41 percent severely cost-burdened.2 As a result, many people found themselves added to the ranks of the homeless.
The crisis hit its peak in 2008. "Under the Claiborne bridge," where Mardi Gras Indians and other social aid and pleasure clubs formerly met to perform their intricate dances and celebrate community, reflected a tent city of homeless men, women, and sometimes children. A usually empty public park in front of City Hall and other government agencies held over 300 people in tents and other makeshift shelters. The New York Times focused national attention on the problem in 2008, reporting that 86 percent of the residents were from the New Orleans area. Sixty percent cited Hurricane Katrina as the reason for their homelessness.3
Homelessness takes its toll in many different ways, both human and economic. The chronically homeless die at rates more than four to nine times higher than the general population. The cost to society for services such as emergency room care, incarceration, and other related activities averages $40,000 per year.4 In comparison, the cost for a full year of tuition and fees at an in-state community college for 2013–14 is just $3,264—and $30,094 at a private, four-year university.5 The 2013 annual gross fair market rent for an efficiency unit in the New Orleans metro statistical area was $7,644.6
The Atlanta Fed's community and economic development (CED) group has been involved in affordable housing issues since the inception of the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977. Issues have included emergency and temporary shelter, development of single-room occupancy (SROs) and senior housing, and other housing needs for vulnerable populations. Because of this population's inability to contribute toward rent and the need for owners/developers to carry little or no debt on the properties, housing the chronically homeless has been one of the most challenging aspects of affordable housing. Recently, new models of housing have emerged to help provide units, including properties that are part workforce housing, part permanent supportive housing. These properties are able to generate more sustainable income streams while integrating different populations. For several years, the Atlanta Fed's CED team has provided technical assistance, financing expertise, and matching financial institutions with an appetite for these kinds of investments with innovative developers throughout the district.
Against this backdrop, the local coalition of homeless service providers in New Orleans was hit with a triple whammy: reduced collective resources, depletion of emergency disaster-recovery Section 8 vouchers, and exhausted staffers and volunteers. The 2012 "Point in Time" survey found that 4,903 people were homeless in the region—a 43 percent decrease since its peak in 2007. While showing remarkable success in permanently sheltering the core homeless, a significant number of people still needed to be housed. How would this demonstrably successful coalition of providers continue its winning streak?
Setting a goal
Stone soup strategy
The results speak for themselves: The coalition achieved the goal of housing 244 chronically homeless people in 98 days, two days earlier and 44 people stronger than its original goal.
What lessons can be learned from UNITY's work that can apply to the field of community and economic development?
Plan for the future, even if it includes disaster
Use data and government support
After Katrina, when UNITY and its partners were helping to develop the state's ground-breaking permanent supportive housing (PSH) program, advocates approached the federal Medicaid program to see if it would assist in quantifying health care cost savings achieved through the use of PSH. The Louisiana Housing Finance Agency (LHFA) shared the coalition's concerns regarding the homeless. Once data were presented to key LHFA stakeholders, they quickly bought in to the idea. The result was a requirement that 5 percent of all units funded by the agency in development under the upcoming qualified allocation plans for Low-Income Housing Tax Credits be set aside for low-income people with disabilities, with the homeless a priority group. In 2014, the state will be expanding the PSH model throughout Louisiana, using funds awarded competitively from HUD.
The first use of the new data system was to help identify people who needed permanent supportive housing the most. The group used a "vulnerability index" that ranks which clients are at higher risk of dying. The index also enabled the group to look deeper into the individual needs of each individual and target resources effectively. Some people required relatively little support, such as rental assistance or job counseling and placement, while others needed more intensive assistance for stabilization.
UNITY will continue to improve on its use of data to increase efficiencies and impact. Last September, it won first place and $25,000 in funding in the Pitch It! The Innovation Challenge competition, which honors breakthrough ideas in the human services field. The Greater New Orleans Foundation partnered with the Kresge Foundation to sponsor the event. The funding will allow the coalition to upgrade its system to assess precisely the level of service its clients require to end their homelessness and match clients with an appropriate agency for help.
Motivation and recognition help motivate staff
Small interventions can have a big impact
Plan and respond quickly
Kegel provided another valuable lesson in effective response, this time regarding national advocacy and working with congressional leadership to access resources. UNITY had limited experience in that niche when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Kegel advised, "If we had to do it all over again, our advocacy would have been much more intense much sooner. The further we got away from Katrina, the less anyone wanted to deal with it and the less they had to deal with it." The advocacy effort was started in 2006. A "Point in Time" survey of the homeless in 2007 found 11,600 in the Orleans/Jefferson Parish area. After battling on behalf of the homeless for two and a half years, Congress approved 3,000 housing vouchers for the Gulf Coast area in July 2008. One significant event provides a lesson in framing issues. A high-profile Associated Press story showed that the most recent Iraqi appropriations bill included housing for Iraqis but none for the flood victims along the Gulf Coast. Persistence, joining forces with those who have similar agendas, and finding a way to compare and contrast the problem so that it hits home are hard-won lessons.
From crisis comes opportunity
The coalition is well on its way to ending homelessness among the target population. After the 100 Days success, it decided to push forward and build on that success by announcing the "500 Homes for the Holidays" campaign. As of last December 23, eight days before the campaign closed, the coalition "wildly exceeded its goal" by housing 528 chronically disabled and homeless people—just in time for Christmas Eve.
No doubt this group will continue to sharpen its focus and provide leadership to other communities in Louisiana—all while continuing to pursue its own ambitious goals.
By Nancy Montoya, former Atlanta Fed regional community development manager, New Orleans Branch
1"Quantifying Homelessness in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes." Danielson, Emily J. New Orleans Housing and Community Development Conference, May 30, 2013.
2 "National Survey of Programs and Services for Homeless Families: Louisiana." Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, Spring 2011.
3 "Resources Scarce, Homelessness Persists in New Orleans." Dewan, Shaila. New York Times, May 28, 2008.
4 United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 2013, usich.gov.
6 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, huduser.org.
7 "Communities Aim for Rapid Results for Homeless Veterans." Maguire, Jake. 100,000 Homes Campaign, May 4, 2012.
8 "Mapping Social Vulnerability to Enhance Housing and Neighborhood Resilience." Van Zandt, Shannon, Walter Gillis Peacock, Dustin Henry, Himanshu Grover, and Wesley Highfield, April 12, 2013.
10 "Lessons on Cross-Sector Community Development: The Las Vegas Healthy Communities Coalition." Choi, Laura. Working Paper 2013-07, December 2013.