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ICYMI: New Orleans considers new downtown homeless shelter

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18229901-mmmainPeople who were living under the bridge in the homeless encampment under the Pontchartrain Expressway relocate to Camp Street after being evicted in August 2014. (Photo by Julia Kumari Drapkin, Nola.com | The Times-Picayune) (Julia Kumari Drapkin)

  By Katherine Sayre, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

A coalition led by the Downtown Development District is developing an outdoor homeless shelter in the downtown area, an estimated $7 million project designed to centralize the homeless population for outreach workers and offer mental health andaddiction services.

Kurt Weigle, president and CEO of the Downtown Development District, said a so-called “low-barrier” shelter has been a missing piece in the city’s system of care for the homeless.

Low-barrier shelters are designed to have fewer rules to stay there — such as being sober or having an ID — to encourage more people, especially the mentally ill and chronically homeless, to walk in and access services.

“When you have a low-barrier shelter, you’re able to concentrate the homeless population in a smaller area, which makes outreach to them on a daily basis much easier and efficient,” Weigle said.

In New Orleans, the proposal is being modeled after facilities in San Antonio, and where a $101 million homeless campus called Haven for Hope includes a mental health and addiction recovery-focused Restoration Center.

 Read about the San Antonio model.

In September, a group of New Orleans officials toured the facility in San Antonio. The envoys included Downtown Development District officials, Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, city health director Charlotte Parent and a representative from Councilwoman Stacy Head’s office.

Weigle said the vision for New Orleans has five main elements: an outdoor shelter, mental health crisis beds, a sobering unit, inpatient detox treatment and medical triage.

The pieces are still being put together. A location for the shelter is still being scouted. It would cost an estimated $4.5 million to build, not including the land. The cost for a property could be a few million, or the land could be donated, Weigle said.

Funding sources haven’t been settled, but private and philanthropic fundraising will be part of the equation, he said. The annual operating costs are estimated at $3.5 million.

Weigle said the goal is to begin construction in one year.

Coalition partners include the city health, housing and community development departments, the Metropolitan Human Services District, Health Care for the Homeless clinic, University Medical Center, New Orleans Emergency Medical Services and NOPD.

Under Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s 10-year plan, the goal is to end chronic homelessness by 2021, if not sooner. The chronic category is defined as being continually homeless for more than a year or having four episodes of homelessness during three years.

According to an annual survey in January, there were 1,603 people living without a home in New Orleans and 100 people in Jefferson Parish, for a total of 1,703. That represents a 14 percent decrease from last year.

The survey represents a snapshot, and the homeless population over the course of a year can increase as people become displaced for a few days, weeks or months.

The homeless population has decreased dramatically since 2007, when 11,619 people were counted in the survey as homeless.

This week, Martha Kegel, executive director of Unity of Greater New Orleans, a collaboration of advocacy groups for the homeless, told the New Orleans Interagency Council to End Homelessness that even with those dramatic reductions, the city still has a higher proportion of homeless people living on the streets — as opposed to emergency shelters or transitional housing — compared with other communities.

With rents on the rise, people are losing their homes, she said. Abandoned buildings are being torn down or renovated, displacing squatters and increasing the number of people on the streets.

Part of the San Antonio model

Prospects Courtyard, part of Haven for Hope in San Antonio, is a partially covered, outdoor space where 650 men and women go every day. The courtyard is designed to engage the homeless with services on the adjacent Haven for Hope campus, a physical proximity leaders there say is key to success.

Weigle said he still thinks a low-barrier shelter can be successful on its own in New Orleans, working with the established homeless services agencies already operating. It will require a coordinated system that gets people to where they need to go, he said.

Other elements would be designed to relieve police and emergency rooms: a sobering facility where someone who is too drunk to be in public can sober up without taking up a jail cell; more beds for people facing a mental health crisis who need medication and observation; and medical triage for people with minor injuries.

The Downtown Development District, which already employs a full-time outreach worker for the homeless, has real estate experts seeking a location that has “limited objection” from the public, Weigle said.

“Nobody is interested in having a two-year battle over where this thing should be located while the homeless continue to sit on the streets, some of them literally dying on the streets of New Orleans,” he said.

Weigle said his agency’s effort is, in part, responding to the fact that downtown businesses and residents don’t want people living on the streets, a possible impediment to economic development. But, he said, it’s more than that.

“It’s about recognizing the potential in each of these individuals who is on the street,” he said. “Every one of these people could be somebody who is contributing to the economy of New Orleans in a positive way. Part of our goal is much grander — it’s to realize the potential of every one of these homeless individuals in a way that helps them, in their life, and also helps the city overall.”

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