Ending Veterans Homelessness in New Orleans: the Importance of Partnerships and Shared Goals

Ending Veterans Homelessness in New Orleans: the Importance of Partnerships and Shared Goals

New Orleans Stand Down October 2011

Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System (SLVHCS), which has a footprint that includes the city of New Orleans, is an active community partner in ending homelessness. They have learned a lot over the years since Hurricane Katrina dramatically changed the landscape in New Orleans – both literally and figuratively.  After Katrina, the VA medical center (VAMC) in New Orleans was rendered inoperable. Meanwhile, homelessness in the region spiked, including increases in both chronic and Veteran homelessness. Since then, SLVHCS has developed new partnerships and is using new, successful practices as they rally to overcome the legacy of Katrina. They have merged their plan to end homelessness among Veterans by 2015 with the local plan to end homelessness generally.

USICH discussed Veterans homelessness in New Orleans and VA’s role in ending it with SLVHCS Director Julie Catellier, Chief of Mental Health Dr. Dean Robinson, and Grant and Administrative Officer to the Chief of Staff Larry W. Rivers, Jr. They shared nine pieces of advice on how to effectively meet the needs of Veterans experiencing homelessness while using resources wisely.

  1. Merge the plan to end Veterans homelessness into the community plan.  If the local plan to end homelessness does not specifically include the goal of ending Veteran homelessness by 2015, as well as the strategies needed to achieve this goal, work with the city or local government to revise the plan so that it is included. If you work with the local VAMC and have your own plan to end Veteran homelessness, then you should work to merge that plan into the community plan. Having one plan for the community is helpful in ways that may not be immediately evident. Plans aren’t just a pile of papers; they shape the community’s response. Being able to share as partners with other organizations and the local government while all pushing for the same goals and strategies is invaluable. It saves time, money, and frustration.
  2. Don’t silo yourself off.  This is good advice for everyone, but it is especially important for local VAs. There is a tendency at VAMCs to think exclusively about the population we are supposed to be serving—which is Veterans—and also to think that this is VA’s issue and that we need to deal with it alone.  This makes sense, but on homelessness you can miss important opportunities for success if you put on blinders in this way.  The operating principle we have been using here in New Orleans is that this is a community-wide issue.  There are many organizations that can help Veterans experiencing homelessness, and they can help Veterans better if we coordinate our efforts. We at VA have a role in the community to provide resources to help end homelessness.  If that means helping non-Veterans as well, then we need to do that.  For that reason, the Stand Downs in New Orleans are open to both Veterans and non-Veterans, and we typically see a 50/50 turn out for these events. The message we want to send is that this is about the community working together to end homelessness for everyone.
  3. Housing First works in general, particularly for Veterans.  Do not be shy about pushing Housing First or other strategies that have proven track records.  There will always be people who are reluctant to change methods, who believe that the old way is the right way.  Because of this, it is important to make it clear why you are pushing a particular policy.  In the case of Housing First, there are plenty of success stories and studies you can point to help bring people on board. If you know the policy is the right one, don’t take no for an answer.
  4. Communicate clearly in all your interactions, especially those with the public that homelessness is NOT a choice and it is NOT a result of laziness.  We have seen that these myths are deeply entrenched and can get in the way of community and political will as well as affect whether or not policies such as Housing First and Permanent Supportive Housing are implemented. Homelessness is not a choice. Drug addiction and alcohol abuse are not choices. They are consequences, and people need a stable base from which to overcome those consequences.  You can’t just wake up one day and decide to overcome poor health, homeless and addiction.  Rather than offering a stable base, the homeless lifestyle actually blocks all means of escape.  For many Veterans the root causes of homelessness are a direct result of service to our country. We have a responsibility as a nation to stand up for our Veterans when people say they chose to be homeless. They didn’t. They chose to serve America.
  5. Coordinate your services.  Make sure when coordinating with partners in multiple sectors to ensure access to services remains a smooth and easily-accessible process for people experiencing homelessness.  There are many ways to create a coordinated front door to homeless services. In New Orleans, we are developing a virtual front door that will allow people to find appropriate services through one website.
  6. Don’t forget about jobs.  Housing, health and mental health are all services VA provides or coordinates for Veterans experiencing homelessness and employment services are critical too.  We are building a new VAMC, which will take 4 years to complete. As a part of the construction contract, the main construction company is hosting a “Building Blocks University.”  One emphasis of this program is training Veterans and other locals who are experiencing or are at-risk of becoming homeless.  After training, they will be able to work on the project for several years, gaining experience that can help them find their next job.  We are also working closely with training programs at community colleges and other facilities to make sure we are training people at-risk of or experiencing homelessness for the good long-term jobs that the new VAMC will create. We are also converting a portion of the old VAMC into a Community Resource & Referral Center (CRRC).   We will provide a spectrum of services at this center, including primary and mental health care, hygiene, cooling and employment services.  We recognize that all communities may not have access to these unique resources, but the point is to be innovative with your projects and keep employment opportunities in mind when you undertake projects not otherwise connected to your goal of ending Veteran homelessness.      
  7. Approach potential partners and share resources. Don’t wait for the city or local organizations to come to you.  If you see an opportunity for partnership, start the conversation.  Put your resources on the table and suggest ways that working together could help all sides achieve their goals.
  8. Be bold, try something innovative.  If you are a VA administrator, don’t limit yourself to what you already know. Don’t assume that the resources you have been using are all that are available.  We have found that VA has been very flexible with funding, because they realize what we are doing is inventive, collaborative and based on successful practices.  Secretary Shinseki has made ending Veteran homelessness one of his top three priorities and VA headquarters is fully supportive of what we are doing to carry out this mission.
  9. Get everyone involved.  We have made it very easy for VAMC staff on all levels to get involved and volunteer to help end Veteran homelessness. More people-power can really help turn the tide by increasing community and political will as we all move toward the same goal.