From 2019, a homeless encampment under the Claiborne overpass. (Lens file photo)

I applaud the Lens article (“The federal government will foot the bill for a renewed hotel shelter program, but New Orleans hasn’t taken the money,” March 16, 2021) for its evident concern for the plight of the homeless, whom as you noted have been found to be nearly three times as likely to die of COVID-19 than the general population. However, I take exception to the unfair impression left by the article that the City of New Orleans is not doing enough to use hotels to house the homeless. 

The public deserves to know that the city of New Orleans and state of Louisiana have the best record of any state or major city in using hotels to shelter the homeless during the pandemic and in providing permanent housing afterward. The city and state, working closely with UNITY of Greater New Orleans, the lead organization for the local homeless housing coalition, and our colleagues around the state, used hotels to shelter 618 homeless people in New Orleans (virtually all the people sleeping on the street) and 1,585 other homeless people in the rest of the state. That was 69.4 percent of the total homeless population counted in the 2020 statewide annual homeless survey. To the best of our knowledge, no other state used the innovation of hotels to shelter such a high proportion of its homeless population.

And the city and state weren’t content with merely providing life-saving temporary shelter, but they provided permanent housing as well. Seventy-six percent of those sheltered in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish and 50 percent of those sheltered statewide were moved from the hotels to apartments, thereby ending their homelessness altogether, with rent assistance and case management services to assure stability by aiding in getting health care, jobs and disability benefits. New Orleans has one of the best records in the nation in permanently housing a large portion of its homeless population through this innovation.  

I can understand the Lens’ frustration that the city, state and UNITY are not yet in a position to discuss plans to again use hotels to shelter the people who have become newly homeless as a result of the pandemic. We can’t give details because plans are still in progress, the process of obtaining advance permission from FEMA is complex, and reimbursement by FEMA of our expenses is not assured unless all the necessary steps are taken up front and throughout the process. 

Your headline gives the reader the false impression that FEMA money is easy to get. It is most decidedly not, as anyone who followed the FEMA reimbursement process after Hurricane Katrina well knows. It involves a dialogue with FEMA upfront about the plan and the budget, making sure to address their concerns and meet all requirements.  Since the money is only provided on a reimbursement basis, part of the planning involves finding money to advance all costs for a long period of time, the process is fraught with risk because expenses might later be refused reimbursement for any number of reasons, and the reimbursement process is complex and can be slow. In the 2020 hotel initiative in which costs were incurred beginning 12 months ago, the government and nonprofit partners spent over $47 million, of which only $22 million has thus far been reimbursed by FEMA.  Until the recent enactment of the American Rescue Plan Act, which promises large sums to state and local government, it was infeasible for the partners to take on significant additional debt and financial risk.

The longstanding partnership between the city, state and the UNITY homeless coalition is key to the success of the local hotel initiative. Especially during a pandemic, when the workload for the city and state in leading public health measures and providing housing and economic relief is obviously enormous, public-private partnerships like ours are critically important and should be supported. All of the partners play vital roles in the hotel initiative, with the City providing public health leadership, critical health care services, extensive permanent housing and case management resources, logistics, transportation, and sanitation, and the state advancing the lion’s share of the funds required,  managing the FEMA reimbursement process for the partners, and providing permanent housing and case management resources. Working with our member agencies, UNITY spearheads the day-to-day work, overseeing the process of bringing people in off the street, assessing and housing each client, and keeping data on each client’s progress in moving to permanent housing.

We are very appreciative that the Lens and so many people in our community share our concern that the most vulnerable people be protected from COVID-19. We welcome hotels and landlords to contact us to be part of this effort.

Martha J. Kegel is an attorney and Executive Director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit organization leading a collaborative of 60 agencies providing housing and services to prevent, reduce and end homelessness in the New Orleans area. She formerly directed a legal services project for the homeless, served as Executive Director of the Louisiana ACLU and Associate Director of the Northern California ACLU, and was the 2002 recipient of the Louisiana State Bar Association’s Career Public Interest Award. She has taught constitutional law and poverty law at Loyola University College of Law in New Orleans and disability law at the Tulane University School of Social Work. Ms. Kegel is a graduate of Stanford Law School, a former Skadden Fellow, and served as a law clerk for the chief judge of the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Amy Stelly at astelly@thelensnola.org.