UNITY of Greater New Orleans to be honored for service to homeless

UNITY of Greater New Orleans will receive a national award Thursday for its “steadfast commitment to rehousing the most vulnerable New Orleanians.” The nonprofit is a collaborative of 63 agencies that provide housing and services to the homeless in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness will present its Nonprofit Achievement Award to UNITY Director Martha Kegel, who will accept on behalf of her agency during a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

UNITY was recognized for its work housing people from homeless camps at Duncan Plaza and underneath the elevated stretch of Claiborne Avenue at Canal Street and for a lesser-known achievement — its successful advocacy at a state level that apartments for disabled people would be set aside in all newly built complexes — said Nan Roman, head of the Alliance.

The agency’s approach at the Claiborne and Duncan Plaza camps was particularly bold, Roman said: its caseworkers worked to put nearly 500 homeless people in their own apartments over eight months, a path that researchers agree is the most long-lasting and cost-effective solution.

“I think a lot of people would have set up shelters and put people out of sight,” Roman said. “Instead, they solved the problem.”

“It’s hard to do that and do it well,” said Roman, who hasn’t heard of another city that has housed as many people in such a short timespan. “UNITY’s work is a model for the rest of the country,” she said, noting that the agency’s outreach work is getting notice from agencies in other cities.

Kegel credited the agency’s governmental partners and the people of New Orleans who have steadily donated furniture, money and food to UNITY, earmarked for people moving from the streets into apartments.

UNITY’s outreach teams continue to comb through abandoned buildings several nights a week and steadily find squatters, many of them extremely ill or elderly, Kegel said. Earlier this week, her caseworkers housed a 72-year-old homeless man suffering from Alzheimer’s and other brain damage, she said.

Kegel, who evacuated for Katrina with her family, including her 20-month-old daughter, said that as they slept on floors and moved from place to place, she “got a tiny inkling of what it’s like for my clients.”

“For the first time, I had the humbling experience of accepting public and private charity,” Kegel said. “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 permanent, stable home.”

Because of those experiences, New Orleanians seem to have a special grasp of UNITY’s post-Katrina work, she said. “New Orleanians understand, as never before, the importance of home,” she said.

Katy Reckdahl, Times-Picayune
Katy Reckdahl can be reached at kreckdahl@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3396.

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