In New Orleans, There's Hope That Veteran Homelessness Can Be Solved

In New Orleans, There's Hope That Veteran Homelessness Can Be Solved

7:19pm Aug 08, 2015

In 2009, then-Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki declared that all homeless veterans would have housing by year's end. New Orleans has made huge strides towards ending veteran homelessness in the city. (This story first aired on August 4, 2015 on All Things Considered.)

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Often the focus of campaign rhetoric and political reporting is broken promises. Well, here's one promise that has been kept. Cities around the country vowed to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs to end homelessness among veterans. The city of New Orleans has actually done it. Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence with this encore presentation.


QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Under the deafening highway noise of the Pontchartrain Expressway in New Orleans, a couple dozen homeless folks are bedding down. It's too hot for blankets. They're using cardboard or clothes to make the concrete a little more comfortable.

TIASHA COTTON: If they're sleeping, like he's over there sleeping, or napping, we don't mess with them at all.

LAWRENCE: That's Tiasha Cotton. She and DaVaughn Phillips work for Volunteers of America. They took me along with them looking for veterans in parks, panhandling along Bourbon Street or camping out under the expressway.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ain't nobody knows about (unintelligible).

LAWRENCE: They know most of the people here. But further off, under a set of concrete pillars, a man is sitting alone. He's wearing tinted glasses, a trucker hat and a seven-day beard. And it turns out, he's a veteran.

RONALD ENGBERSON: I got into the Marine Corps back in 1979.

LAWRENCE: How long have you been living on the street?

ENGBERSON: Since - 2005 is when I lost my job and...

LAWRENCE: So if New Orleans says it has zero homeless veterans, why did we just find this Marine living under the expressway? Melissa Haley, a supervisor at Volunteers of America, says you can't look at it that way.

MELISSA HALEY: Homelessness is a continuous process. There's a veteran right now who is in a home who could very well be homeless tomorrow.

LAWRENCE: What she means is that New Orleans is at what's called functional zero.

HALEY: Functional zero is defined as having a process and the resources in place where we can immediately house a veteran.

LAWRENCE: So if today a vet loses a job, misses the rent and gets evicted in New Orleans, the city can get him or her housed within a month. Melissa Haley says it's often faster.

HALEY: It is possible to house a veteran in a day. There is an average that we work for to try to get a veteran housed in seven days to 14 days.

LAWRENCE: To prove it, she sent me along with an outreach team, which is how we met that homeless Marine under the expressway. His name is Ronald Engberson, age 54. When caseworker DaVaughn Phillips heard that name, he looked down at his clipboard and got really excited.

DAVAUGHN PHILLIPS: We've been looking for you.


PHILLIPS: When you said Ronald Engberson, I almost jumped up and started shouting. They've been looking for you to put you in some primary housing.

ENGBERSON: I've been everywhere.

LAWRENCE: DaVaughn Phillips recognized him because of a simple innovation - a master list. All the nonprofits, the New Orleans VA and the mayor's office now coordinate to keep one constantly updated list of homeless veterans. Because Engberson is already on it, his military record has already been confirmed, and DaVaughn Phillips can get him into an apartment he's got standing by.

PHILLIPS: So tomorrow morning, be at the New Orleans Mission.


PHILLIPS: I'm going to be right there waiting for you. So we - if you come tomorrow over there, we're going to get you placed in some permanent housing by Friday.

ENGBERSON: Oh, thank you.

LAWRENCE: The list allows caseworkers like Taisha Cotton to follow individual vets and build trust.

Like, you're going out and finding homeless vets by name almost. Like...

COTTON: Yeah. We know them. They'll start the process, and then they'll vanish. You keep a good relationship with them because you never know when their minds will change.

LAWRENCE: New Orleans went from 470 homeless vets in 2011 to functional zero today. Nationwide, spending on homeless vets is up 300 percent since President Obama took office - about a billion and a half dollars last year. Washington provides the money, but it's locals doing the work on the ground.

SAM JOEL: We built an army. I think that they're going to be there for us moving forward.

LAWRENCE: Sam Joel is with the mayor's office in New Orleans, which is coordinating that army of nonprofits, local VA and volunteers, many of them veterans. They know which landlords will take which housing vouchers and which veterans qualify for what federal program.

JOEL: We've built this machine, and now it's just a matter of running it. For the last six months, we've aggressively sought to house homeless veterans in an expedited fashion, and we're going to keep on doing it.

LAWRENCE: Like with the Marine veteran, Ronald Engberson. They got him an apartment in one day. First thing he did was shave off his beard.

ENGBERSON: Let's do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Looks good, looks good.

ENGBERSON: Looks better, huh?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Laughter) It does.

ENGBERSON: I cut myself a little bit.

LAWRENCE: Up a flight of stairs, he's got a two-bedroom apartment - kitchen, bathroom and most importantly, a roof overhead.

ENGBERSON: I'm just like - I'm thankful I'm inside. I have AC. You know, I don't have to deal with the rain, the lightning, you know, and people walking up on me all the time.

LAWRENCE: The next challenge is to keep a vet like Ronald Engberson in that apartment, find him a job and treat his alcoholism, which Engberson says has kept him on the street for 10 years. It's called Housing First - Melissa Haley with Volunteers of America.

HALEY: I'm an old-school social worker. Back in the day, if you were on drugs, you had to get off drugs before you can be housed. If you had untreated mental illness, you had to treat the illness and demonstrate success before you could be housed.

LAWRENCE: Housing First is the idea that it's easier and cheaper to get homeless people indoors, and then work on everything else. And Haley says it makes sense, especially to people down here.

HALEY: In New Orleans, most of us - and myself included - experienced being displaced as a result of Katrina. I couldn't deal with FEMA. I couldn't deal with the insurance companies until I know - knew where me and my family was going to sleep that night - that once you put a person in housing and they know they have a roof over their head, then they can start addressing those other issues. And we've found success.

LAWRENCE: That empathy is what people in New Orleans say helped their city be the first one to end homelessness among veterans. Using the same combination of best practices and lots of money from the VA, Houston declared in June they've hit functional zero. Cities like Philadelphia, Phoenix and Salt Lake are racing to be next. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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