The New Orleans Point-in-Time count was delayed due to the Mardi Gras and the Super Bowl, events that literally take over the city. On Monday February 25th with the thousands of tourists back at home, the City was ready to count those without a home. The New Orleans Count is coordinated by UNITY of Greater New Orleans. UNITY serves as the lead agency for the New Orleans/Jefferson Parish Continuum of Care.
There was a full moon and the weather was warm and clear following heavy showers earlier in the day. I attended the training at the UNITY offices beginning at 8pm. Kathleen North, UNITY’s Director of the Permanent Supportive Housing Registry, spoke to the 60 volunteers on what to expect during the evening. James Tardie of the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System offered some good advice about safety. Finally, Martha Kegel, UNITY’s Executive Director, thanked the volunteers and told them how valuable their service is to the ongoing work to prevent and end homelessness in New Orleans. Volunteers received bright yellow t-shirts emblazoned with “2013 Homeless Survey” so it was clear to everyone our purpose that evening.
UNITY uses the PIT Count as an opportunity not only to count but also to identify each person using a Survey. Much of the training focused on how to complete a successful interview using the “Homeless Demographics and Needs Survey,” also known as a Vulnerability Index. The Vulnerability Index is a methodology for identifying and prioritizing the street homeless population for housing according to the fragility of their health. It was developed by Dr. Jim O'Connell of Boston’s Healthcare for the Homeless organization. As a city participating in the 100,000 Homes Campaign, New Orleans uses the survey to develop a list of their most vulnerable and at-risk residents. Known as the Registry, it is the backbone of the work to prioritize them for housing.
The survey is not mandatory and it is not required to be counted. But if an individual does agree to complete the survey they must consent to be interviewed. Moreover, they can agree to be photographed and allow release of their survey information to other service organizations. During the course of our team’s work, while almost all consented to be interviewed some chose not to be photographed or have their information shared.
The Survey covers housing history including where you have been staying, time in New Orleans, and time spent in facilities or institutions. There is also an extensive health history with questions about medical conditions, substance use, and mental health, as well as the number of visits to the hospital and emergency room. Military service is also covered in detail. UNITY added a Youth Addendum for individuals age 24 or younger that asks about education status, work, sexual orientation, parenting, and social service history. A gift certificate to Burger King would be offered to anyone who took the time to complete the survey, which could take between 20 and 30 minutes.
We broke up into 8 teams each taking a selected section of the City. I was assigned to a team led by Kathleen that included Danberry Carmon, Director for the New Orleans Field Office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ronnika Brewer, an Outreach Specialist at Covenant House, and Calvin Lee, Building Superintendent at UNITY.
We headed off to the French Quarter and did not come upon anyone currently experiencing homelessness in the mostly residential neighborhoods until we reached Bourbon Street, an area known for its colorful and active nightlife. We quickly came upon a group of young men between the ages of 19 and 24 that were eager to speak with us. I spoke with “J”, a young man 24 years old who said he was not homeless but home-free and traveling through. These young people described their lives as being on the move by hopping trains to get to their next destination and making do by playing music and making connections along the way.
A few wanted to complete the survey. I interviewed a young woman named “Lisa” who hailed from Maine and had been homeless since she was 14 or 15. She spoke of a history of mental illness and being in and out of hospitals and institutions, including jail. She sat on the side of the street with a sign that said, “Traveling through –anything helps. “
It was clear that this particular group of young people on Bourbon Street represented the most severely and chronically disconnected cohort of homeless youth with the highest risk factors – apart from family for many years, criminal and delinquent behavior, sexually at-risk, and using alcohol and drugs. They spoke of no apparent family supports and had little or no work history. Their survival was rooted in the street and in the support they found within their own group or those they met who offered assistance. I worried that their lives also put them at increased risk of exploitation or being victims of violence.
Ronnika, who works at Covenant House, said that these young people may come to her program for a shower or a meal but they were not likely to stay to receive ongoing services. This type of homelessness represents the smallest percentage among youth that are homeless and it requires the most comprehensive intervention – a combination of ongoing outreach, transitional housing to achieve a level of stability, and then housing independence with ongoing social service support as needed. USICH recently released a preliminary framework to respond to youth homelessness that incorporates both risk and protective factors. This cohort exemplified high risk with low protective factors.
We continued down Bourbon Street and met “Richard,” a man in his mid-forties who told us he has been homeless for years – clearly meeting the federal definition of “chronic” that would make him a priority for help. He did not look well and Calvin of the UNITY staff arranged to follow up as he agreed to go into a shelter and receive services. Richard was willing to be interviewed and photographed. UNITY now had Richard’s personal information including a long history of homelessness and medical conditions that would prioritize him for permanent supportive housing.
It was now close to 2AM and it was time to finish up for the evening. As we headed back to UNITY, we commented on how willing the individuals were to tell their stories. We were taken aback by the group of young adults that were so open with us but also so needy. Dan and I talked about the great need in New Orleans to address homelessness, but also of the deep commitment in the community to come together to end homelessness. Finally, as we turned in our surveys, we knew that the conversations we had and the information we collected would be critical to assist UNITY in providing housing and services to the most vulnerable individuals in New Orleans.