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New Orleans Has Achieved a 12 Percent Reduction in Its Unsheltered Population

A new city office focused on homeless services has given a boost to programs to help the unhoused in New Orleans.

An outreach worker speaking with someone on the streets of New Orleans.
An outreach worker on the streets of New Orleans. In visiting encampments with the director of the city’s new Office of Homeless Services and Strategy, Councilwoman Lesli Harris has visited encampments and been surprised to encounter neighbors priced out of their housing.
(UNITY of Greater New Orleans)
In Brief:
  • Inflation and housing shortages have pushed homelessness to the top of challenges facing America’s cities.

  • New Orleans has created a new city office to address the issue.

  • The city is making progress on its goal of moving more people off the streets and into permanent housing. "Without investing in this approach, we’re no better off than putting them in the garbage," says one top city official.

  • According to a count conducted last year, the homeless population in New Orleans was just over 1,300. That represented an uptick, but the city still had a rate of less than one homeless person per thousand population. In the most impacted cities, the rate is 10 or even 20 times higher.

    Still, when Lesli Harris joined the New Orleans City Council, she was convinced her city could do even better. “Even some of my colleagues think that people just want to be outside,” she says. “There’s a misconception that they are drug-addled or have some psychological problem and are refusing housing.”

    Harris teamed up with Jennifer Avegno, the director of the New Orleans Health Department, to create a new Office of Homeless Services and Strategy. With the help of a $15 million grant from HUD and other funding sources, the city has managed to clear out three encampments — and then place the individuals who’d been living in them into housing.

    “We’ve housed 127 individuals who would not have been housed had we not had these resources,” says Nathaniel Fields, director of the new homeless services office. Even though the city’s homeless population has increased slightly in the past year, this effort translated into a 12 percent decrease in the number of people who were without shelter at all.

    Homelessness is an issue all over the country, with housing shortages exacerbating the long-standing problem. A January survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that homelessness was the top concern of America’s mayors. That month, HUD’s annual estimate of the 2023 homeless population showed a 12 percent increase over the previous year.

    New Orleans has had long experience in dealing with the issue. The city has community-based groups with experience and success in helping the unhoused. More than 11,000 residents became homeless in 2005 as a result of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, over eight times the current unhoused population.

    However, New Orleans never had a person or office with the sole responsibility of working with these groups.

    Launching a New Office

    The Office of Homeless Services and Strategy was launched at the beginning of last year. Fields brought nearly a decade of experience in homeless services to his new job, including work in the Baltimore mayor’s Office of Human Services and a leadership role in the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

    Lesli Harris, Nathaniel Fields and Jennifer Avegno standing together for a photo.
    Lesli Harris, Nathaniel Fields and Jennifer Avegno (left to right) are bringing a new office focused on homeless services to life.
    (City of New Orleans)
    Councilwoman Harris also hired a consultant to help the city develop a strategic plan for the new office. This search led them to Mandy Chapman Semple, who had already drawn national attention as the architect of programs that helped Houston and Dallas make significant headway on the issue.

    Chapman Semple earned degrees in microbiology and public health before working at her first shelter. This training, she believes, helped her see that once someone had been brought off the street, there generally wasn’t a working system in place for getting people into permanent housing.

    The plan she developed in consultation with New Orleans is not only to place individuals into housing, but afford them access to services they might need to remain stably housed. In New Orleans, the pieces were mostly there, but the challenge was to use them more effectively.

    Targeting Priorities

    UNITY of Greater New Orleans, the nonprofit that is the lead agency for the city’s continuum of care program, secured the $15 million grant from HUD. That came with enough funding to provide rental assistance to several hundred individuals for three years. The award was matched by an in-kind pledge from local hospitals and universities to provide wrap-around services. The city also had $1.1 million from the Louisiana Housing Corporation to work with.

    Fields decided to start with encampments. He was concerned about crime around them and in them, including the vulnerable homeless population being targeted by predators. In partnership with UNITY, Travelers Aid and other community-based organizations, Fields developed a plan to decommission major encampments, braiding their resources together to provide both housing and case management services.

    Fields has maximized the use of the city's low-barrier shelter, Harris says, ensuring beds aren't sitting unused. He's improved relationships with landlords, increasing their willingness to accept tenants who need vouchers to help cover their rent by educating them about the other resources OHHS is using to aid individuals.

    "We hold the landlords accountable all the time, but we also need to hold our officers accountable to make sure they get paid on time," he says.

    Ms. Sonia sitting at a table reading a bible.
    UNITY outreach workers found Ms. Sonia, 64, sleeping on a piece of cardboard. She’s shown reading her Bible in a permanent apartment that comes with furniture from the UNITY warehouse and ongoing case management services.
    (UNITY of Greater New Orleans)

    An Ongoing Problem

    New Orleans has had success tackling homelessness in the past. In addition to making it through the overwhelming task of helping thousands after Katrina, in 2015 New Orleans became the first city in the country to end veteran homelessness. “We’ve maintained that, to the best of my knowledge,” says Joe Heeren-Mueller, community engagement and warehouse manager for UNITY.

    Tackling encampments is a first step, Heeren-Mueller says, but two-thirds of the city’s homeless population is living in shelters, while half of the unsheltered are living alone or in small groups. These less visible aspects of homelessness will grow worse over time if they're not addressed as well, he says.

    To her surprise, Harris has encountered former neighbors in encampments who had been priced out of housing. Rents have gone up nearly 30 percent in the past three years, says Heeren-Mueller.

    “We’re dealing with a vulnerable population that people often dismiss as nuisances," says Gilbert Montano, the city's chief administrative officer. "Without investing in this approach, we’re no better off than putting them in the garbage.”
    Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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