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How New Orleans Ended Veteran Homelessness | Commentary

In New Orleans, we are all too familiar with the feeling of homelessness. After Hurricane Katrina, literally all of us were without a home.

Unfortunately, too many veterans across this country face homelessness on a regular basis. In fact, 50,000 of our nation’s veterans are without a home on any given night.

First lady Michelle Obama said it best: “When a veteran comes home kissing the ground, it is unacceptable that he should ever have to sleep on it.”

While these brave men and women have served our country across the world, too many of them return home only to fight a new battle — a battle to have a roof over their head at night.

In New Orleans, we have proved it doesn’t have to be this way. We can change.

One of my top priorities as mayor is to help those who courageously served our great nation in the Armed Forces, but, for whatever reason, now find themselves without a home. So, we took up the charge to be the first city in America to complete the first lady’s Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homeless by the end of 2015.

Earlier this month, I was honored to join with military leaders; veterans; and local, state and federal partners at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans to officially announce our city had become the first in America to end homelessness among veterans — a full year ahead of the national goal.

It was an extraordinary moment, but it didn’t happen overnight. It took time, hard work and perseverance. And it took all of us, working together with partners at every level, to get the job done — an approach we call the new New Orleans way.

Our first step was to identify and locate every homeless veteran living in New Orleans. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2014 New Orleans Homeless Point in Time survey, there were 193 homeless veterans living on our streets or in shelters on any given night. But this was just a starting point. Then, experienced outreach teams combed New Orleans daily looking for homeless veterans.

These efforts were dramatically supplemented on five nights this fall, when about 150 active duty military personnel and veterans joined the effort to systematically seek out and engage every homeless veteran. Many of these same service members and veterans would later help move their homeless brothers- and sisters-in-arms into their new homes.

From there, the local VA, HUD, non-profits, our city’s housing authority and countless others all went the extra mile. Through these combined efforts, 227 homeless veterans in New Orleans were permanently housed as a part of the Mayors Challenge — far more than we originally identified.

As we celebrate this historic milestone, we must also recognize an obvious truth: The work of ending veteran homelessness never really ends. Tomorrow, next week or next month, a homeless veteran could arrive in New Orleans or a veteran could lose his or her home.

So, we not only housed all the homeless veterans we could locate in New Orleans, but, in doing so, we also created a new, sustainable and rapid-response outreach model that combines all of our available resources with the engagement of our local active duty military personnel and area veterans. Now, when a veteran does become homeless in the city of New Orleans, this homelessness will be rare, brief and nonrecurring.

We are proud New Orleans is the first city in America to end veteran homelessness, but it remains a daunting problem across this nation.

In the past few years, President Barack Obama has directed record levels of funding toward helping homeless veterans, achieving historic success in getting our men and women in uniform into housing. However, that support must be supplemented at the local level with a clear mission and a united effort. So, the Mayors Challenge is really a clarion call from the first lady and president to community leaders across the nation to come together and help end veteran homelessness in America once and for all.

To date, 421 local leaders across the nation have accepted the challenge to end veteran homelessness, including 313 mayors, seven governors and 101 city and county officials. We hope our work in New Orleans on the front end of this effort can inspire and guide these cities as they seek to replicate our success.

I call on every city to join New Orleans in ending veteran homelessness for one simple reason: Veterans fought for our freedom and our way life, and it is now our turn to fight for them.

Mitch Landrieu is the mayor of New Orleans, La.

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