What New Orleans Can Teach Other Cities About Reducing Homelessness

By: - October 15, 2019 12:00 am

A homeless encampment under an overpass in New Orleans. The city’s homelessness rate skyrocketed after Katrina. But since 2007, New Orleans has reduced homelessness by 90%. Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to disclose the source of a statement from the Housing Authority of New Orleans, and to delete erroneous information about the authority’s federal housing vouchers.

NEW ORLEANS — In the shadow of the Superdome — the epicenter of Hurricane Katrina’s horrors — Will Vanslaughter zips in and out of traffic, scrubbing windshields, charming drivers, armed with a squeegee, a water bottle and a smile.

“A lot of people think we’re bums,” said Vanslaughter, 46, who recently landed an apartment with the help of a local nonprofit after living under a bridge for three years. “But I don’t come out here to get money for drugs. I come out here to feed myself. This is how I survive.”

Vanslaughter is one of thousands of homeless and formerly homeless people the city of New Orleans is struggling to stabilize. Still, in many ways, New Orleans is a success story.

After Katrina, homelessness skyrocketed, from about 2,000 people experiencing homelessness in 2005 to nearly 12,000 in 2007, according to Unity of Greater New Orleans (Unity GNO), a nonprofit designated by the federal government to lead the city’s efforts to provide housing and services to the homeless.

But in 2011, the city launched an all-out offensive on homelessness, slashing the number of homeless residents by more than 80%, from close to 6,700 in 2011 to fewer than 1,200 in 2018. Factoring in the city’s efforts to reduce homelessness since 2007, the overall number has been slashed 90%.

“It’s heroic stuff,” said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “They really shook things up and forced people to work together who weren’t before — and demanded results. It’s a great story.”

City officials did it by fighting homelessness on a variety of fronts: They adopted a “housing first” policy: providing homes and services to New Orleans’ neediest, without requiring that they resolve mental health or substance abuse issues first. They expanded a health care clinic for the homeless and started conducting weekly check-ins to connect more people to counseling and other services.

They designated 200 housing vouchers for veterans and set aside 55 units for them in a converted convent. They successfully lobbied Congress for 3,000 extra housing vouchers in 2008. And last year, the city opened a 100-bed, “low-barrier” shelter where people don’t have to be sober to be admitted.

In tackling the problem, the city relied almost exclusively on federal funds, according to Andreanecia Morris, executive director of HousingNOLA, a partnership of city officials, homeless advocates and dozens of nonprofits and public and private organizations.

To cover the cost of the low-barrier shelter, New Orleans officials used the city’s old Veterans Affairs building, which was acquired through a land swap with the federal government, and used $5 million from the Downtown Development District, according to HousingNOLA.

The city did not raise taxes or slash funds from other line items, according to Morris.

Also last year, the city announced the release of $10 million for developers to build affordable housing units. And in July, Democratic Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced the city would award $3.8 million in low-income housing credits and $25.5 million in community development block grants to create 642 affordable housing units.

This summer, University Medical Center New Orleans launched a “homeless consult” program in which doctors, social workers and nurses track homeless people admitted into the ER and get them the services they need. And the city will soon open a “sobering center” for chronically intoxicated people, many of whom are homeless, where they can dry out safely while under medical supervision.

But despite the gains officials and advocates have made, challenges persist.

On Saturday, Louisiana voters rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have allowed New Orleans to use property tax exemptions to incentivize the creation of more affordable housing units.

What’s more, there are signs that homelessness may be on the rise again in the Crescent City. After 11 years of steady decreases in the city’s homeless population, this year, the number of people experiencing homelessness dropped by only nine — less than 1%, from 1,188 to 1,179 — according to the annual “point in time” count released in April.

Meanwhile, locals are complaining about what they see as the increasing numbers of homeless people in the French Quarter and under the city’s viaducts.

“I honestly haven’t seen any improvements,” said Aletha Tolbert, who works full-time as a Lyft driver in the city. “I drive though the city all the time. You can’t tell there’s a dent put in the homeless rate.”

City officials say the city’s homeless problems appear worse than they actually are because its unsheltered population clusters in the French Quarter and the Central Business District, where the homeless are more likely to run into tourists with money.

“People misunderstand the concept of ending homelessness,” said Sam Joel, former policy adviser to former Democratic Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who worked on the city’s 10-year plan. “It takes daily work.”

The city’s low-barrier shelter, meant for anyone in need, including pets and spouses, is full. And last month, HousingNOLA released a report card giving the city a “D” for the current state of affordable housing.

The report found, for example, that a worker earning Louisiana’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would have to work 107 hours each week to afford a modest two-bedroom rental in the city.

“We’re at a really critical crossroads,” said Martha Kegel, executive director of Unity GNO.

The Housing Crunch

In March, the City Council passed the Smart Housing Mix Ordinance, which is intended to build and preserve affordable housing units by incentivizing developers to build lower-income housing units within market-rate developments. 

But wages have not kept pace with the city’s rising rents, which means that many New Orleanians struggle to cover their housing costs.

The roughly 60 homeless services agencies in the city are faced with a Sisyphean task, unable to keep pace with the influx of the newly homeless. In 2018, they helped move more than 1,000 homeless people into permanent housing. But the same year, nearly 2,200 people became newly homeless, according to a 2019 report by Unity GNO.

Meanwhile, the Housing Authority of New Orleans, the city’s public housing authority, has a waiting list of 24,196 for Section 8 housing vouchers, according to HousingNOLA.

Evette Hester, the new executive director of the Housing Authority of New Orleans, did not respond directly to questions from Stateline, but shared a statement through the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities that the number of housing vouchers can fluctuate based on tenants moving out or searching for new housing.

Before and After

When the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, flooding much of the city, roughly 70% of New Orleans’ housing stock was damaged, creating a “longstanding crisis of homelessness,” according to the 2019 Unity GNO report. Even many in the middle class suddenly found themselves experiencing homelessness, couch-surfing when they could, squatting in abandoned buildings. The city was on the verge of bankruptcy. The murder rate soared.

“We were in a no-joke, crisis situation,” Joel said. “We were killing ourselves to try to house these folks but there was no place to put them.”

New Orleans officials looked at what other cities were doing to resolve homelessness. For example, San Antonio was the model for a low-barrier shelter system that doesn’t require that people be sober to be housed, and allows couples to live together, said Dr. Jennifer Avegno, director of the New Orleans Department of Health.

The city also adopted a “rapid resolution” approach for people who were newly homeless, perhaps because they’d been evicted, or they’d had a falling out with their parents. Advocates helped reunite them with estranged family members or paid their rent.

“We want the most humane and compassionate approach,” Avegno said.

Meanwhile, the city rebounded. Tourism is on the rise, according to New Orleans & Company, the former convention and visitor’s bureau and the New Orleans Marketing Corporation. In 2018, 18.5 million visitors flocked to the city, a 4.3% increase from the previous year, with a 3.9% increase in total visitor spending, to $9.1 billion.

Construction is also growing, according to ENR Texas & Louisiana, an industry publication. An influx of outsiders flooded the city, scooping up real estate and renovating shotgun houses. There are yoga studios and art galleries, antique stores and pricey condos.

“There was an amazing response about saving the city,” said Morris of HousingNOLA.

But there’s a disconnect between the city’s rising rents and what locals can afford to pay.

Before the storm, 45% of renters paid $300 to $499 a month on rent, according to HousingNOLA. In a city where the median income is ,700, that meant that housing was relatively affordable, Morris said. Sixty percent of the homes were valued under $100,000, which made home-owning within reach for lower-income buyers, she said.

But now, just under 13% of renters pay less than $500 a month, with a median rent of $990. The median price for a single-family home in New Orleans in 2019 is $204,500, according to the National Association of Realtors.

“If you made $12 an hour, you could buy a house,” Morris said. “Not anymore.”

HousingNOLA says the city needs more than 33,000 more affordable housing units by 2025 to remedy the housing crisis. So far, a little over 1,600 have been built or rehabbed since 2015, according to Morris.

Another issue bedeviling New Orleans: Because the city is such a huge draw for tourists, many people come for a good time, and then for a variety of reasons, end up stranded and sleeping on the streets.

“We were making progress on what we consider our homeless population,” Avegno said. “But this new influx has blunted our progress.”

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Teresa Wiltz

Teresa Wiltz covers welfare, housing and social services for Stateline. Previously, she worked for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.