‘I’m truly blessed’

A former homeowner who fell
on hard times and couldn’t find work, Dionne Webb teetered
on the edge of homelessness.

She found a new home in the Rosa F. Keller Building in Mid-City, New Orleans’ first mixed-income and permanent supportive housing facility.

Now others like Webb will have the opportunity to keep a roof over their heads, thanks to a second development UNITY of Greater New Orleans has under construction on Louisiana Avenue on the edge of Central City.

The idea of the developments is to prevent those on the cusp of homelessness from getting there and to rescue from the streets the most vulnerable of the existing homeless population. In the latter instance, the goal is to make people more self-sufficient through the permanent supportive housing that connects chronic homeless with on-site case management services.

Webb, who three months ago found a job in food services at Delgado Community College and was able to move out of a shelter she called home for a short time, said her paycheck just wouldn’t cover any other housing, something that would leave her living in a shelter permanently or on the streets. At the Keller building, she pays $581 a month for her one-bedroom unit. That figure is based off a sliding scale that takes her income into account.

“I’m blessed to be in this apartment,” Webb said. “I’m truly blessed.”

Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY, the nonprofit homelessness collaborative, said it’s not uncommon for low-income workers such as Webb to be in a precarious housing situation. Rents shot up after Hurricane Katrina, but many wages remained stagnant.

“We’re trying to help people become as self-sufficient as possible,” Kegel said.

Part of that involves the case managers who help some residents find work while ensuring that those who already have jobs keep them. It’s a way to give a permanent home to the city’s vulnerable homeless — those who are old, sick or mentally ill, for example.

That permanence is what sets the housing initiative apart from other ways of combating homelessness, said Jeanne Reaux-Connor, UNITY’s project manager.

In addition to the services offered, there’s a sense of community at the facility that helps prevent residents from falling through the cracks, something that can easily happen if they’re left alone or are just part of the crowd at another facility, she said.

The new building at 2101 Louisiana Ave., a former assisted-living residence, will have 42 units and is expected to be completed by summer 2013. Officials hope that it will continue to put a dent in the city’s estimated homeless population of about 4,900.

While the Louisiana Avenue development will be the second permanent supportive housing facility in the city, it will not be the last.

Kegel said plans are already in the works to redevelop the former Sacred Heart of Jesus elementary school on Canal Street in Mid-City. The agency hopes to work on a project at the former naval base on Poland Avenue in Bywater.

“It’s important to get the second, third, fourth and fifth,” buildings Reaux-Connor said.