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.
UNITY of Greater New Orleans leads a coalition of over 60 agencies that provide housing and other services to the homeless population. Founded in 1992, the nonprofit continues to work toward the goal of preventing, reducing, and ultimately ending homelessness in the community.
UNITY of Greater New Orleans
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
Enter the 200 Homes in 100 Days Campaign. At the invitation of the Chase and Starr Foundations, Community Solutions, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness,7 and HUD, service providers from the region gathered in Orlando in May 2012 for the first of two Rapid Results Institute's Housing Boot Camps. After reviewing the data the group decided on a goal: By the 10th anniversary of Katrina on August 29, 2015, no chronically homeless disabled person would remain homeless. In May 2013, the first benchmark under the new goal was established: to house 200 chronically homeless people within 100 days. Again, coalition members determined the specific measures each could take to contribute to this goal. The process was a lesson in community development effectiveness. Within a day, over 77 agency representatives learned about the scope of the problem, identified barriers to responsiveness, developed challenging but realistic goals, and left the event energized for action. UNITY Executive Director Martha Kegel explained, "The fact that there was a national initiative that we could use to inject ourselves…we really wanted to seize that opportunity. Somehow, we had to figure out how to do something with nothing." The boot camp encouraged agencies to think creatively, and Kegel was impressed they were able to pull resources "out of thin air."
Stone soup strategy
What was begun that day snowballed over the next 100 days into a community effort to dig deeper in the agencies' pantry. "The boot camp galvanized us with an idea that is true for many communities, but especially New Orleans. This is a poor community—you may not have enough for dinner, but you can go borrow an onion from a neighbor and somehow collectively come up with a pot that can feed everybody, and make it taste good, too," said Kegel. While each organization couldn't single-handedly tackle the goal, each could contribute to the solution. For example, a state agency offered to provide data entry services for the coalition so that other members could concentrate on the work of identifying and housing the homeless.
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
One of the keys to UNITY's success is that it already had built a strong coalition to address existing needs prior to Katrina. Neighboring Jefferson Parish, considered a suburb of New Orleans, saw the success that Orleans Parish was having in securing competitive federal funding and asked to join the coalition. The coalition benefited in turn when two Jefferson Parish employees, Gay LeBlanc and Cynthia Solomon, embraced and pioneered the "Housing First" model of working with the chronically homeless in the state. The philosophy is that you provide permanent housing and then offer support services; the housing provides the stability necessary for the person to tackle other complex problems like substance abuse and mental illness. The model showed demonstrable results in reducing costs to local municipalities.
Use data and government support
Another key to the coalition's success was the deliberate and thoughtful use of data to help achieve results. The coalition recognized that it was going to need to increase its advocacy to secure the support of elected officials and other key influencers. Back in September 2009, the coalition approached the state's Medicaid office to see if it would engage in an effort to quantify savings of the housing interventions by getting health care cost information released on mutual clients. The partnership was fruitful, showing that significant money was saved by systematically targeting those most ill and in need of services.
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
One critical component to the coalition's success is its emphasis on keeping its collective staff motivated and productive. Many staffers are burdened with heavy workloads and low pay, yet they continue to meet and exceed ambitious goals. There's no downplaying the importance of personal dedication. Post-Katrina, the staff tackled the homeless situation as their contribution to the rebuilding process. Kegel said, "A big change for us was Katrina. We felt that our whole community was at stake…how was New Orleans going to recover when the streets were like Calcutta? What kind of impact does that have on the psychology of everyone?" This sense of commitment and urgency has extended well past the Katrina recovery. To keep motivated, staff members frequently celebrate victories large and small at coalition meetings and other events. At each staff meeting a guest speaker who is either formerly or currently homeless addresses the staff to tell them of the impact of their work on his or her life. This reminds both front-line and back-office staff of their dedication to this work and the clients. Kegel said, "After mind-numbing paperwork, if you can see that every additional moment helps house one more person, that makes a difference. Feel the need, feel the success." Whenever possible, small tokens of appreciation such as restaurant gift certificates are given to staff. Praise is liberally shared with the collaborative partners—during a recent interview no less than five individuals from a variety of state, city, and nonprofit organizations were singled out as champions for their collaborative efforts.
Small interventions can have a big impact
The Housing Boot Camp in Orlando came at just the right time for the UNITY coalition. By 2012, staff and leadership were exhausted and needed encouragement to continue their work. The boot camp sponsors provided national experts to work with local leaders to customize goals and identify resources unique to the participating communities. The groups then charted a path to achieving their goals, attacking the problem using a variety of methods. While each organization independently could not solve the homeless problem, collectively they exceeded their goals.
Plan and respond quickly
The group's experience also provides valuable lessons for communities preparing for and responding to disasters. The group's initial reaction to Katrina was to direct upcoming federal resources to prevent homelessness, not just address homelessness. But the need and response required were far greater than the group could have anticipated. Housing stock was severely diminished and formerly able-bodied individuals became disabled due to physical and psychological impacts of the storm. Others who had been cared for by family members no longer had the support of those displaced households. People who were financially and physically vulnerable experienced the harshest effects. Kegel said, "You're always going to have the most vulnerable people need a lot more help and for a lot longer than anyone realizes." Research bears this out: Shannon Van Zandt, an associate professor at Texas A&M University, wrote, "Households and neighborhoods identified using vulnerability mapping experienced negative outcomes: later evacuation, a greater degree of damage, fewer private and public resources for recovery, and slower and lower volumes of repair and rebuilding."8 Therefore, planning ahead and mobilizing local contacts and agencies beforehand can help minimize disaster impacts by more effectively targeting and intervening in the most vulnerable neighborhoods and populations.
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 could have buckled under the weight of the increased need. Instead, faced with immense need and driven by its commitment to help rebuild New Orleans, the group found new solutions and developed new skills to leverage existing resources. New Orleans had always faced a persistent problem with homelessness, but this group seized the opportunity to improve the system and strengthen relationships that will serve them well in the future.
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.
In UNITY's model, many of the hallmarks of a good collective impact model can be found. First, the initiative has a strong backbone organization that provides leadership and coordinates participating agencies and organizations.9 Other characteristics include using data to drive the initiative, prioritizing the development of a logic model or systems map, understanding the local context and adapting for success, and using opportunities to test, refine, and learn; see a recent San Francisco Fed paper.10
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.