How New Orleans Ended Veteran Homelessness

9 min read

A storm gives a city determination 

Martha Kegel remembers the intense six-month campaign to end veteran homelessness in New Orleans as “building the plane while we were flying it.” The goal was met but, just as impressively, after being the first city in America to achieve this milestone at the end of 2014, the Big Easy has maintained an effective zero homeless balance for vets in every year since.

While Kegel’s nonprofit, Unity of Greater New Orleans, has used tax credit financing in the past as it has built up to a portfolio of 3,600 supportive housing units, New Orleans’ innovative solution to this stubborn affordable housing problem came not from the capital markets but from a diverse and unique consortium consisting of city, state and federal agencies, nonprofits, private philanthropy, and even the U.S. military, along with a mayor who made this program a top priority.

Then-mayor Mitch Landrieu became the point of the spear when former First Lady Michelle Obama issued a Mayors Challenge to end veteran homelessness in big cities by the end of 2015. Many mayors took up the challenge (see sidebar on p. 29), but New Orleans crossed the finish line first, beating the deadline by a year.

Homelessness of all kinds was big on the city’s radar screen in 2014 after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left more than 10,000 residents of New Orleans homeless. Annual point-in-time (PIT) homeless counts showed 660 veterans were living in shelters or in the streets of New Orleans during 2011, according to Kegel. After 2014’s campaign the PIT number dropped to 27 in 2015 and has remained at those levels, with the homeless Continuum of Care coalition (led by Unity) counting 29 in 2018.

Key nonprofits in the Continuum of Care have included the Volunteers of America, the Hope Center and the Start Corp., Kegel says. “All three of them played a major role in getting to what we call Functional Zero.”

A Perfect Storm
Katrina was a perfect storm in more ways than the meteorological. It “very much impacted the veteran community,” says Kegel, Unity’s executive director. “The VA hospital didn’t reopen, and when they did resume hospital-level services they were located at various places instead of the former central location.” Other negative factors included “70 percent of housing being severely damaged and the hospitals being severely damaged and the health care system being upended and psychiatric services being upended and people being under incredible stress, which led to aggravation of mental health illnesses and substance abuse disorders. All of that created a perfect storm of homelessness, in particular for veterans.”

With the original effort in 2014 the coalition actually housed more veterans than were counted in that year’s PIT. “We knew there were approximately 193 homeless veterans on our streets at the beginning of 2014. With that number in mind, we didn’t just hit our mark, we exceeded it by permanently housing 227 homeless veterans by January 2015,” says Landrieu, who left office in 2018 and since then has founded the E Pluribus Unum Fund.

“The city partnered with the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System, UNITY of Greater New Orleans, the Housing Authority of New Orleans, the state Office of Community Development, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and the New Orleans Interagency Council on Homelessness,” according to Landrieu.

The first job was to identify the affected veterans and add them to a master list. This is where the military came in handy, with active-duty personnel canvassing the city’s homeless to identify the veterans among them in the streets.

It was a poignant effort that extended beyond just finding the homeless vets. Landrieu remembers, “About 150 local active duty military and veterans conducted five veteran homeless outreach nights trying to locate them and get them off the streets. In addition, these volunteers helped move formerly homeless veterans into their new homes.

Comrades in Arms
“This extensive outreach effort created important connections between homeless veterans and their fellow brothers and sisters-in-arms. They answered the call every time, leaving no man or woman behind. We found that no one can connect with a homeless veteran like someone who has stood in their boots before,” Landrieu observes.

Then, more than 200 apartments had to be found to house the veterans, and since the effort was completed in just six months, there was no time to develop new housing. Luckily, Kegel says, Unity was rehabbing an old convent it owned, and the Sacred Heart Apartments on Canal Street ended up taking in more than 50 of the veterans. (Catholic Charities acts as the case manager in the building.) Others were placed in existing large- and medium-sized developments, along with many in smaller, “mom and pop” rental houses.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Veterans Administration had a program that was well-suited to the need for “supportive housing,” called HUD-VASH. The two federal agencies had been working together on veteran homelessness, with HUD providing housing vouchers and the VA supportive case management for the veterans.

The trouble was, many of the HUD-VASH vouchers had already been committed, and more than half of the vets on the master list didn’t qualify for the program. So the Housing Authority of New Orleans issued the necessary vouchers through its Housing Choice program.

“We were using every pot of money we could get hold of,” Kegel comments. These included the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program for short-term rental and case management assistance. Plus, there was a substantial amount of philanthropic support for what was a very high-profile effort that engendered lots of media attention.

After the declaration of victory, in January 2015, came another challenge: how to keep the success going once the adrenaline of the fall campaign and all the media attention was over. Just as “extraordinary” as the original effort has been the “day-in-day-out” effort ever since, with weekly meetings of those who monitor success in identifying new homeless veterans and getting them rehoused within 30 days, Kegel says.

“As difficult as it was to house all those veterans in such a short time, what makes us even prouder is we have maintained that 30-day average to house homeless veterans for the last four and a half years.”

Every day the monitors scan shelters for veterans and try to find any veterans on the street so they can be rehoused.

Never Going Back
“It would be very easy to just fall back to what was the case years ago,” Kegel says. “But we are never going back to those days. We maintain a tremendous commitment to this.”

In addition, there have been efforts to supply new types of veteran housing in the past five years.

In 2014, says Landrieu, a group led by a veteran and city aide, Dylan Tête, developed a semi-independent community for vets that would assist them and their families through the transition from military service to civilian life. “Through the Bastion Community of Resilience development, ill or injured veterans and their families live alongside retired military and civilian volunteers,” Landrieu says.

“Phase 1 of the community is fully operational and includes 38 apartment homes and a wellness center, which serves the community of 76 residents, 29 of which are children. Phase 2 of the project is currently under construction and will add 20 new homes,” he says.

In 2016, Volunteers of America Greater New Orleans opened its Oscar J. Tolmas Veterans Center, a 20-bed shelter to increase the capacity of the nonprofit’s transitional housing program for homeless veterans, says the former mayor.

And in 2018, before he left office, New Orleans “began construction on a 12,000-square-foot low barrier shelter funded by the Community Development Block Grant, Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund, Downtown Development District, Louisiana Housing Corp. and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center,” Landrieu says.

Story Contacts:
Mitch Landrieu, Founder, E Pluribus Unum Fund
[email protected]

Martha Kegel, Executive Director, Unity of Greater New Orleans
[email protected]


Housing Larry
Keeping homeless veterans well housed after they get off the streets takes a good deal of thought and effort, as shown in the case of Philadelphia. In the City of Brotherly Love, a successful Mayor’s Challenge accomplished in 2015 and subsequent efforts have taken a robust total of 2,116 veterans off the streets. But one of the lead agencies in the effort, Veterans Multi-Service Center (VMC), found it can be a challenge to keep them well housed.

It has developed a guide for after care for these veterans, some of whom become homeless again, so they can maintain housing stability.

An article on the program describes the case of “Larry,” a 65-year-old Marine Corps veteran with cognitive problems that make him rely on VMC staff for a lot of needs. Larry has responded well to a therapy group, which uses music to stimulate reflections about his personal experience.

“A VMC-specific program, Veteran’s Trust, really helped Larry reach a greater level of stability in permanent housing. One element, money management, allowed VMC to act a as rent payee. Larry’s cognitive impairments coupled with his experience of homelessness have made money management a challenge,” writes Kathleen Salerno, director of homeless services at VMC.

“Veteran’s Trust also offers guidance for veterans on spending habits and cultivates an ongoing relationship with landlords to ensure difficulties with rent payments do not arise.”

Keys to Housing Homeless Vets

  • Enlist your mayor. If your mayor is not able to lead this cause, ask someone with special clout in your community to do so.
  • Make a master list of all veterans experiencing homelessness. Update your master list every day with the names of those newly found in emergency shelters. Make a concerted effort to regularly scour the streets for veterans.
  • Target your housing resources. Make sure those on your master list are highly prioritized for every housing resource.
  • Passion and determination. You will need to work up a full head of passion for this cause, if you are to plow through the considerable obstacles and resistance you may encounter to prioritizing resources differently and getting an overwhelming amount of work done quickly.

 — Martha Kegel, executive director, Unity of Greater New Orleans

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.