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.

Why heavy rains make me think of NOLA… Thursday, Jul 11 2013 

Guest post by Isaac Coplan, MES grad student at York University and former CINT 912 student at Ryerson University.

Two nights ago I took an hour and a half to get home (usually a 45 minute commute). I ran through heavy rain and arrived at my lobby to find that the power was out.

 

Shortly after the rain started, York Commons, York University. Photo by Tanya Gulliver.

Shortly after the rain started, York Commons, York University. Photo by Tanya Gulliver.

I climbed up the stairs to the 8th floor while I swore out loud. When I got to my place, I looked out past the balcony at Wilson ave. and Highway 401, both bumper to bumper. They remained perfectly congested until 930pm. My partner and I sat without power and ate sandwiches. Our stove is electric. We only have one blueberry scented candle and a wind-up flashlight that was giving my partner a headache by the end of evening. All in all it was kind of fun; we played chess and then crazy eights and hung out by blueberry candlelight. Our water was still functioning (though I think the hot water was out by 10pm). Our iPod touch was able to function as our alarm when both of our cell phones died. When I went to sleep, I had a brief moment of thinking that the lights and power may still be out in the morning when I woke up, what would I do then? Our AC had been out for hours and we were starting to get a bit muggy, our food probably wouldn’t last more than a couple of days in the freezer.

Flooding on King St in Toronto. Photo by Steph Vasko.

Flooding on King St in Toronto. Photo by Steph Vasko.

Throughout Toronto, hidden waterways that used to mark the landscape prior to colonialism, development and re-development reached out their swampy arms and flooded the Gardiner Expressway and basements throughout the downtown core. The water systems reminded us that they are there, and that they can’t really be tamed or routed. Sure enough, at 230am the lights flickered back on and scared us. The returning electricity saved our food and allowed us to plug in our cell phones. Other than the stoplight out at the end of our street and wet pavement, the events from the day before were hardly a memory by the morning.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans probably started in much the same way as this heavy rainfall. It wasn’t the largest hurricane that had passed through the region. Many people start off by having hurricane parties and meeting up with friends. It all probably started off pretty fun, but then at some point, that panicky feeling that things may not get better ended up being true. People ended up losing family homes and suddenly being without places to stay. Displaced, they were reaching for inexistent assistance from people in other states and from their own government. People drowned in their attics, or in the flow of water. The news referred to them as refugees and the media began immediately to blame the victims. The infrastructure that was supposed to protect those people in the Lower 9th ward and St. Bernard Parish was insufficient and the storm surge reminded everyone that it was in charge (not the Army Corps of Engineers). FEMA trailers were lined with asbestos and other harmful chemicals for those who even qualified. The remnants of Katrina are still in New Orleans. Those who lost people, places and signifiers to the storm surge of Katrina will think of it when they see every new storm coming.

Now, heavy rains make me think of this displacement and temporality of shelter as I know it. I look outside and it forces me to think about the privileged position that I am in. I live high above the water level if there ever is a flood. I may or may not have power, but my living space is cool enough and I am consistently hydrated. I have food to eat, even if there is a chance that it will go bad. I have a place that I can return to when the rain falls quickly. I have a place that is safe, where I have dry clothes and a support system. In Toronto, there are lots of people who don’t have that. There are lots of people displaced who are threatened by severe weather. People living in unsafe housing or outdoors whose possessions are at continuous risk of being destroyed, stolen or “cleaned up”. For those people, every rainstorm can be as devastating to them as Hurricane Katrina. Their ‘heavy rains’ may not even be tied to weather, they are tied to social, political and economic positions that they are placed in often through no fault of their own. We have an obligation to make sure that everyone has safe housing, and that there are adequate supports for those who are displaced. When the heavy rain is over, and my power is back up, I have the privilege of breathing a sigh of relief.

It really is time for change, to end displacement as we know it.

It doesn’t take a dream, it just takes a commitment.