New Orleans and Homelessness Tuesday, Jul 23 2013 

The National Alliance to End Homelessness conference is happening this week in Washington and I’ve been following the hashtag #NAEH13 to see what’s new in research and homelessness. Iain de Jong (@OrgCode) posted the following: “New Orleans on track to end chronic homelessness by 2015. Huge high five! #NAEH13”

My first reaction, and my reply tweet to him, was “@OrgCode hmm. I’d be interested to see the research. lose 25% plus of your most at-risk pop’n & have hundreds of bldgs for squatters…”

But I decided to do a bit of research – I am after all a PhD student working at a pan-Canadian research network – before being too hasty. Turns out, there may be some truth to it – at least in terms of how it looks on paper. New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) has made some great strides in ending, or at least reducing, homelessness.

In a post on OneCPDResourceExchange last week entitled “SNAPS Weekly Focus Guest Blog: Working Together to End Homelessness”, Martha Kegel, Executive Director, UNITY of Greater New Orleans and Stacy Horn Koch, Director of Homeless Policy, City of New Orleans discuss the successes of the plan to end homelessness in New Orleans.

The stats about decreases in homelessness certainly present a clear picture of a dramatic increase (after Hurricane Katrina) and a dramatic decrease. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, there were 2,051 homeless people in New Orleans; two years later that number had jumped to 11,619 people. This number has been steadily declining; in 2009 it dropped to 8,725 and then to 4,903 in 2012. Currently, the number stands at 2,337 – a 47% decrease from last year.

As the chart makes it very clear; homelessness is on the decrease and in a big way, in New Orleans. Kegel and Horn Koch state that the key problem was linked to the impacts of Hurricane Katrina “Just a few years ago, New Orleans had one of the nation’s highest rates of chronic homelessness. This distressing phenomenon was largely due to the lingering effects of the Hurricane Katrina levee failures in 2005, which wiped out the city’s stock of affordable housing, shattered the health and behavioral health systems and scattered the extended family and community networks on which so many vulnerable people once relied.”

The success in reducing homelessness lies with the City of New Orleans, UNITY of Greater New Orleans and the 63 agencies who are part of the Continuum of Care. This partnership model is very much in line with what we are constantly promoting here at the Homeless Hub, the need for a “systems response” to ending homelessness. The network of agencies work together to help find solutions –systemic and individual—to homelessness in New Orleans.

This model has led to some incredible successes. Not only has total homelessness been reduced but there has also been a focus on chronic homelessness. This has decreased 85% since 2009 – from 4,579 to 633. Kegel and Horn Koch highlight this and say, “What was unimaginable only a few years ago is now within sight: New Orleans is on track to become one of the first cities to eliminate the long-term homelessness of people with disabilities, in line with the federal plan to end chronic homelessness by 2015.”

This has been noted elsewhere as well. In 2011, Community Solutions (formerly Common Ground) reported that “Despite overwhelming obstacles, New Orleans, a partner in the 100,000 Homes Campaign, now boasts the country’s highest housing placement rate for homeless adults.” This is a clear part of New Orleans’ 10 year plan to end homelessness.

In addition to using the systems approach, NOLA is also being very strategic. They recognize that with thousands of abandoned buildings it’s easy for people to stay hidden if they choose. Outreach teams for UNITY concentrate on abandoned buildings as a way of tracking where people might be living. As this article from nola.com explains the city also captured unspent grants for recovery given to developers and is using them to build housing for homeless people and to provide rent subsidies. It also explains another strategy where “The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority is making 20 of its properties available for the program, offering each to developers for 10 percent of the appraised value or $1,345, whichever is higher.” This helps ensure that unused housing is being fixed up and that people who otherwise might remain homeless are getting housed.

The resources for people who are homeless, marginally housed, living in poverty or otherwise vulnerable in New Orleans is quite extensive. A great directory has been compiled by UNITY and can be found here.

But a few counter points:

  • A study of geographic origin of homeless people in Houston found that nearly 2% were from Louisiana. While the study has some methodological challenges, this is nearly double the percentage from California, the next highest state of origin.
  • An article in The Stranger from Seattle, points out that New Orleans’ rate of homelessness as a percentage of the population remains high compared to elsewhere.
  • The extended family living situation common in New Orleans means that there could be a large number of “hidden homeless” people: those who are doubling up with family and friends.
  • The New York Times Katrina diaspora map reminds us that people were flung far and wide post hurricane. Many of those who faced challenges returning were those with low incomes and other marginalization issues.
  • There were many challenges for people who owned their homes in proving home ownership and right to title because of a casual inheritance system common in New Orleans. While that legislation was modified in 2009, prior to that it resulted in many people being homeless or facing challenges in being re-housed. Post 2009, many people who were homeless because of this policy were able to return home.
  • There are still about 35,000 blighted properties in New Orleans. Even the best outreach teams can’t check every home, every night to make sure no one is sleeping there.

None of this discounts the successes that New Orleans has had. The progress it has made is nothing short of remarkable. But the broad, systemic problem of homelessness persists and it is going to need concentrated effort from many sectors to end it.

This article also appears in the Homeless Hub’s Research Matters blog.

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Volunteering with the Red Cross Tuesday, Jun 5 2012 

I’ve been volunteering since I was a kid. I think the first time was with my dad when he did his shifts at the Smith Township library; later I did my own shifts. In elementary school I began organizing fundraisers and events to help feed children in Africa. From high school on volunteering was an important part of what I did in my life. I dedicate a significant amount of time  to volunteering every week; even here in the US (as I write this I have just finished a call-in to a board meeting with the Professional Writers Association of Canada where, as I finish my 7th year on the board this week, I serve as Past-President).

I volunteer with the Disaster Services arm of the American Red Cross.

I’m really enjoying my work with the American Red Cross. I’ve written before about my two experiences on bigger Disaster Relief Operations – in Vermont with Hurricane Irene last August/September and in Carencro (Lafayette), Louisiana this past march with the SWLA Flood. Most recently, I trained as an instructor in the disasters stream and have been doing some trainings prepping volunteers to be shelter volunteers if needed in the hurricane season.

Red Cross cot assembly

The shelter training participants at the New Roads library in Point Coupee around a Red Cross cot they learned to assemble (My training partner, Jonathan Hammett, Regional Partnership Manager for Southern Louisiana is in the red shirt).

Even though my Master’s degree I received in 2009 and the PhD I am undertaking now are technically in Environmental Studies, there was/is a huge focus on disasters in both of them. The courses I took at York University – through the Faculty of Environmental Studies and the Disaster and Emergency Management program have been incredibly helpful and useful as I learn more about the inner workings of a Disaster Relief Operation. I sat in on a planning meeting last week; the number of volunteers that will be required if a large hurricane hits is enormous. On top of that, you have to anticipate that some trained volunteers won’t be able to respond given their own life circumstances, so training must include 3x the number of people  you actually anticipate needing.

The most common disaster in the United States is the single home house fire (image source: American Red Cross).

Even outside of “wartime” ie when there isn’t a formal, large-scale disaster there is lots of work to be done. A standard disaster cycle is Preparedness, Mitigation, Response and Recovery. But once you have recovered, the system is right back into preparing and mitigating. What worked, what didn’t work, how many people need to be trained this year, what shelters will be needed, where will they be etc etc etc.

My other main function with the Red Cross right now is helping the South Louisiana Regional Partnerships Manager, Jonathan Hammett, with some of the preparedness work. Not only are we training volunteers, but we are in a constant recruitment mode to try to find more. We are also connecting with groups and organizations, especially churches, to secure spaces for a shelter. This involves meeting with an interested church, assessing their interest and capacity, then if they are supportive having a full evaluation of their space completed to ensure that it is safe and suitable. Finally, a partnerships agreement is signed. During an actual disaster, I’ll be a Community Partner Services Lead for the South-East Lousiana chapter which will include connecting with our partner groups and helping to mobilize them (Jonathan has the same role but will be based out of the Baton Rouge chapter). The Madisonville office where disaster operations will be based for the SELA reponse is less than a 15 minute drive from my place (though there are rooms for sleeping if required).

A little blurry but this is *why* I volunteer. The question asks “How did the Red Cross help you” and under “other” the client wrote “Smiles”. In a time of crisis, knowing that someone was there with a smile and support is the most important gift we can give our neighbours.

Will you consider being

“Ready When the Time Comes”

and become a Red Cross volunteer?

Ask me for details!!

Louisiana American Red Cross State-Wide Training Days Monday, Jun 4 2012 

Image Red Cross Statewide Training Days

Red Cross Statewide Training Days

If you’ve ever thought about volunteering in a shelter during a hurricane evacuation, now is the time to get trained. Saturday June 9th and Saturday July 14th are state-wide training days in Louisiana.

In the New Orleans area there will be training at the Canal Street office and the Madisonville offfice. If you’re outside the Metro area there is also training in Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Shreveport, Monroe, Alexandria and Lafayette (Scott) on both days. There will also be training on June 9th only in Thibodaux and in Luling on July 14th only.

Personally, on July 7th I should be doing a training at the New Orleans Healing Center’s Street University and on July 14th, I’ll be doing a training in New Roads, Point Coupee.

The Disaster Services Overview  and Shelter Operations/Simulation combined course is just one day of training and then you’re “Ready When the Time Comes” to serve in a shelter in case of a hurricane.

The easiest way to register is to go to: http://www.batonrouge.redcross.org/hurricane-training

Click the date and the chapter that works best for you. This will take you to the registration system. Click on New User at the top right of page and fill out the very short form. Last, click Place Order. (There is no charge for disaster courses.)

Although details will confirm only the first class of the day, you will be signed up for the sequence of courses throughout the day. The training runs 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

DR 404-12 SWLAFLD Friday, Mar 16 2012 

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Goods removed from a home following the flood.

I’m in a hotel in Scott, Louisiana, a suburb of Lafayette. I drove up this morning to help with the latest disaster to hit Louisiana, what the American Red Cross is calling DR 404-12, (Disaster Relief) SWLAFLD (SouthWest Louisiana Flood). Heavy rains fell overnight Sunday into Monday morning. In some areas – especially in Carencro – there was up to 19 inches of rain and 7 feet of water on the streets. Interestingly enough, there has been very little media coverage about this in the New Orleans area (at least on TV) but supposedly CNN has been covering it. For a great summary please read this.

My last DR (in Vermont in Aug/Sept for Hurricane Irene) was extremely stressful. Already, after just a day of being here I feel like I have done more concrete work; admittedly shelters – especially on the night shift – are very low-key. But it was clear today to see how my contributions were valued and needed.

Today I drove up – left Abita Springs at 6am!! – in time for a morning orientation/update session for the Disaster Assessment and Client Casework volunteers. I spent the morning helping develop sample forms to assist with Client Casework (which starts tomorrow). I was also able to edit materials and double-check data for errors; my writing/editing skills are being put to good use. In the afternoon I attended the Client Casework Training and then organized all the materials and documents caseworkers will need.

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Flooded contents (and possibly vehicle).

It was also determined that I have amazing handwriting skills; really, I just did what my dad does which is to write in block print. It’s clear, easy to read and leaves very little room for confusion. But, nonetheless, I was asked to write up everything from the staffing flowchart to the sample forms to labels.

It was also noted — and my mom and bf should likely put down any drinks so as not to spew their contents in disbelief — that I am incredibly organized. Mom? Joey? Still with me? I think in part it comes from being able to see both the big picture and the little details at the same time. When you concentrate on just one aspect you tend to lose perspective.

Tomorrow I will be going out to do some client casework, and then depending upon demand will likely be doing data entry on Sunday.

Tonight we found out (and I only know because I am rooming with the Client Casework lead) that Red Cross National has approved funding so that Client Assistance Cards (CACs) can be provided to people with major damage (which is usually more than 36 inches of flooding) or those whose housing was completely destroyed. These funds can be used for food, bedding, storage containers, clothing, shoes, diapers etc.

In a future post I will share some thoughts about Environmental Justice and Disasters…but 7am comes very early (especially since my roommate is getting up at 530am!!!). I’ll leave you with an interesting tidbit from the ARC website: “An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.”

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Mylar balloons danced in the wind amongst the debris pulled from a trailer.