While the Hampton Roads region is making some progress when it comes to housing homeless veterans, there are still hundreds who need housing. However, New Orleans has made history as the first major U.S. city to essentially house all of its homeless veterans. NewsChannel 3 investigator Jessica Larche traveled to the Big Easy to find out how they did it and if Hampton Roads is on track to do the same.
"More than any other secret, it takes passion," said Martha Kegel, executive director of Unity of Greater New Orleans. The nonprofit helped lead the city's efforts to house all of the homeless veterans on its master list by the end of 2104.
"We were all homeless after Katrina," said Kegel. "Every one of us in New Orleans experienced to one degree or another that awful feeling of not having a home."
Over the summer, Kegel and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu answered the First Lady Michelle Obama's challenge to mayors across the country to house every homeless veteran by the end of 2015. Landrieu charged New Orleans to do it by the end of 2014.
"If people served our country, the least we can do is help them out when they need a hand, just like they helped us out," said Kegel. "It was uncharted waters because nobody had ever really figured out how to get to zero."
By January 2, 2015, the city housed the last of its 227 homeless veterans.
"If you come at it, just understand the wrong of it, then you`re going to plow through all the obstacles," said Kegel. "And there`s a zillion obstacles."
One of those obstacles is funding. This year, the federal government poured more money into housing vouchers for veterans. The City of New Orleans coordinated efforts with Unity and the local VA hospital to get vouchers processed for veterans who qualified. For those who did not, the coalition of nonprofits worked to find other means to house veterans.
Others obstacles included finding housing. The city worked with landlords to get them to accept more veterans with housing assistance. In addition, the city poured roughly $1.6 million into rehabbing the old Sacred Heart convent in the city. Most of the apartment units are dedicated to permanent supportive housing for veterans.
"It can`t get no better than this for me. I love this place," said former marine Christmas. He was recently housed in the rehabbed Sacred Heart. He will never have to pay more than a third of his income to keep his apartment.
"A lot better than what I went through like the last three years," said Christmas. "Sleeping in and outdoors, under bridges and overpasses, in abandoned houses."
To track down veterans in shelters, on the streets and in abandoned buildings, the city organized a group of 150 active duty military and veterans to comb the streets.
"We`re brothers and sisters in arms, and we`re able to relate to them on a veteran to veteran basis," said Marshall Hevron, a former marine and member of the outreach team.
"It`s just been a lot of elbow grease initiative to get this done," said Hevron. "I think we now have a toolkit other major cities can use."
Claudia Gooch with The Planning Council is helping to lead the way to end veteran homelessness in South Hampton Roads.
"We were very excited because it means it can be done and it`s possible," Gooch said of New Orleans' accomplishment.
According to The Planning Council's numbers, there were 581 homeless vets on the Peninsula and South Hampton Roads combined when the state started its 100 Day Challenge to house homeless veterans in September 2014. Since then, a coalition of local, state, federal, nonprofits and the Hampton VA have housed a little less than half of that number, which is around the same number of veterans as New Orleans has housed since the nationwide mayors' challenge.
"It feels good," said former Navy sailor Raechel Small, who was housed during Virginia's 100 Day Challenge. "It's a big relief."
Gooch said one road block they're getting through is working with the Hampton VA to process housing vouchers much faster. With that, and additional resources, she believes Hampton Roads is on track to house every homeless veteran by the end of the year.
"We are hopeful that we can identify enough resources to get people into housing quickly and to reach functional zero as New Orleans has," Gooch said.