The Washington Post

New Orleans has been housing more than 2 homeless people a day for months

(David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

Eight years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the level of homelessness there is still higher than pre-storm levels. But it has been rapidly dropping.

Since late May, the New Orleans region has housed 218 220 of its hardest-hit homeless, a rate of more than two a day. That puts it ahead of a goal to house 200 in the 100 days ending on Sept. 1. If the nonprofits and government agencies involved can keep it up, the region will be six months early in meeting a federal goal of eliminating so-called chronic homelessness by the end of 2015.

“We’ve already housed 80 people in August alone,” says Martha Kegel, the executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit that organizes 63 of the area’s homelessness organizations. To end chronic homelessness, the group needs to house an additional 1,300 people.

The chronically homeless are defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as those with disabilities who either have been homeless for a year or more or have experienced four bouts of homelessness in the last three years. The chronic population numbers have been particularly high in the region — the chronically homeless accounted for nearly half of the homeless population in the New Orleans/Jefferson Parish area last year, according to a HUD report. There were 2,368 chronically homeless there in 2012, nearly 700 more than the second-ranked area in its small-region category.

Yet the region has seen a dramatic dropoff in its broader homeless population. HUD measures homelessness annually by asking local government and nonprofit agencies to provide a count from a single winter night. In 2007, UNITY counted 11,619. The number has steadily fallen as the region has rebuilt homes, housed the homeless and reestablished support networks. This year, the count stood at 2,337, less than half of last year’s but just above the pre-Katrina level of 2,051, according to UNITY.

And New Orleans isn’t alone. Despite the Great Recession and weak recovery, the nation’s homeless population has been slowly falling since 2009, according to HUD data analyzed by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“The fact that it hasn’t gone up is pretty incredible,” says Nan Roman, president of the alliance. “It means that this whole government working with the nonprofits in the cities and states focused on being outcome-oriented [and] improving performance and all that stuff actually can work.”

Roman and Kegel say stimulus money and federal efforts have helped to prevent a dramatic climb over the past few years. And the New Orleans example is an encouraging sign, Roman says. The goal of housing 200 homeless in 100 days came out of a May workshop aimed at reenergizing and focusing local homeless organizations. And other groups have been attending similar events and setting similar goals, though achieving the 2015 goal nationwide will be difficult.

The success of the New Orleans program and similar efforts around the country, both say, isn’t about a radical change. Rather, it’s about better organization, data collection and collaboration among agencies. It may not be revolutionary or achieving dramatic results, but it seems to be working.

Niraj Chokshi is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

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