At our Annual Awards Ceremony on April 22, we’ll honor Unity of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit organization leading a collaborative of 63 agencies providing housing and services to the homeless in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. In 2009, UNITY provided housing or services to 19,468 homeless children and adults – nearly twice the number of people served annually before Hurricane Katrina.
Executive Director Martha Kegel will accept our Nonprofit Achievement Award on behalf of UNITY. Read on to learn more about Martha’s story and UNITY’s work.
1. What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
As climate change leads to more disasters of great severity here and around the globe, a sustained commitment is needed to ensuring permanent housing solutions for the poorest and most vulnerable victims of disasters. Here in New Orleans, nearly five years after poorly designed levees broke, several thousand of the most vulnerable victims of Hurricane Katrina – most of whom have serious disabilities but were stably housed before the disaster — are living in Third World conditions, squatting in New Orleans’ 61,000 abandoned buildings filled with mold, rotting debris and gaping holes in the ceilings as though Katrina just happened.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast too is seeing widespread homelessness as a result of massive loss of housing stock and dramatic increases in rents since Katrina. The lion’s share of attention is given to emergency relief when disasters happen, but a strong and sustained partnership is needed between nonprofits, government and philanthropies in order to ensure that the most vulnerable victims of disaster — especially children, the elderly and extremely poor people with mental and physical disabilities — are a top priority in designing and implementing long-term recovery programs.
No one should stop working on behalf of the most vulnerable until they are all stably re-housed. In the devastated areas of Louisiana, innovative programs have been launched. But we and our partners still need help to finish the job of rescuing and rehousing vulnerable people.
2. What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
Homelessness kills people, plain and simple. Research shows that homeless people are at increased risk of dying because of the rigors and dangers of having to live on the street. People forced to live for many months or years on the street or in abandoned buildings tend to see their health dramatically deteriorate.
Conversely, housing can save lives. Fortunately there is a new movement to prioritize housing resources for the most vulnerable people with the greatest need for housing. As people in the HIV/AIDS community have long understood, housing is truly a form of health care. It’s tragic that people with disabilities in this country do not yet have the legal right to housing. Of course, housing should be recognized as a fundamental human right for everyone.
3. How did you start working in this field?
I have been involved in civil rights and affordable housing advocacy for many years, first with the ACLU and later as a Skadden Fellow working in some of the poorest communities of Louisiana. In 1997, I began directing a homeless legal advocacy project at New Orleans Legal Assistance Corp. I found my clients’ struggles profoundly moving. They were the people who had fallen through what I discovered were gaping holes in the social safety net. I realized that as a lawyer I could file appeals and lawsuits to obtain disability benefits and unpaid wages for my clients, and I could challenge unlawful arrests resulting from the criminalization of homelessness, but legal action was never enough – in good conscience I could not close a case until my client’s homelessness was ended. I realized that it often took a bunch of people and organizations working together to actually pull my clients out of their homelessness.
In 2003, I eagerly took on the challenge of leading a network of organizations which now provide housing and services to nearly 20,000 homeless people annually in New Orleans. Since Katrina, we work hard to advocate with government at all levels for the resources our clients need, work with the news media to increase awareness of homelessness and what is needed to solve it, and seek to involve the entire local community – as well as the many people around the nation who deeply care about New Orleans’ recovery – in ending homelessness here.
4. Where do you draw your inspiration?
Our outreach team – the brave and deeply compassionate people who spend their nights rescuing vulnerable people from the abandoned buildings of New Orleans – provide daily fuel for my determination to end homelessness. One morning a video snippet sent to me by an outreach worker — showing him trying to comfort a woman who had been sleeping on a bedroll heaped on piles of garbage in an abandoned house — left me in tears. One afternoon the team took me to meet an elderly man whose gutted home was filled with thousands of aluminum cans he had collected in a desperate attempt to raise the funds to make it livable. And one evening they led me into a flooded abandoned hospital occupied by homeless people, including a severely mentally ill man. As long as our outreach workers continue to find elderly and disabled people living in these conditions, I will not give up this fight.
Love for New Orleans – my adopted hometown with its unique culture and beloved hodgepodge of people and neighborhoods — drives me. Like nearly every New Orleanian, when I evacuated for Hurricane Katrina, I suddenly found myself and my family, including my 20-month-old toddler, homeless. It was a transformational experience. I got a tiny inkling of what it’s like for my clients. In six weeks’ time, my family and I slept in five different places.
For the first time, I had the humbling experience of accepting public and private charity. For the first time, I did not know where my family would sleep the next night. For the first time, I experienced the mental confusion, the physical disorganization, the fear and hopelessness that people experience when they do not have a stable permanent home. Because of our prolonged displacement, New Orleanians understand as never before the importance of home. We cannot rest until our most vulnerable neighbors have one, too.
5. Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
Because we now know full well what the solutions to homelessness are, and they are cost effective compared with the cost of keeping people homeless. Here’s what we learned in New Orleans, when we re-housed 457 people, mostly ill, from two large squalid homeless camps in eight months (despite the fact that we had no housing or services resources in hand when we began): You can achieve permanent housing solutions for large numbers of people quickly, if you have a sense of urgency, if you use evidence-based practices, and if you call on the entire community and your government partners for help.