Digital civic engagement: Aiming to reduce homelessness in New Orleans

In most major cities, homelessness is a problem, and New Orleans is no different. That being said, however, New Orleans certainly has its unique quirks when it comes to the the homeless problem that exacerbates it. While the pandemic was a shock to a lot of people’s livelihoods leaving many homeless, this was on a national scale. New Orleans, being the tourist hotspot it is, has some homeless that don’t fall under national umbrellas, like people who come from out of town for a festival or event and can’t make it back, their response to natural disasters like Hurricane Ida destroying people’s homes, not to mention the city’s lackluster response to Katrina which has stifled the growth of certain neighborhoods to this day (even during Ida, Mayor Latoya Cantrell inexplicably refused to open shelters for the hurricane out of fear that people who had homes would go there instead, which in my opinion is absurd) 

Homeless tents under Pontchartrain Expressway, a hub for the homeless in New Orleans due to its shade

The city’s efforts to help have proven futile for the most part. From an article in July 2021, anticipating the end to the CDC’s eviction moratorium, it was written that “The city’s rental assistance program — set up to alleviate residents struggling to pay rent during the pandemic — has been overwhelmed by requests. The program’s first 5,000 applicants should have received assistance by last week, the city said in a press release, but over 14,800 have signed up for the program”. Clearly, this city specifically is either unwilling or unable to provide funds to keep people in homes or off of the streets. This also shows in the fact that a New Orleans Health Department survey shows that 80% of homeless people do not want to live in the city-provided shelters due to horror stories such as stolen possessions. Despite the fact that there are only around a thousand given homeless people in New Orleans, there are approximately thirty thousand blighted properties as of 2019. Obviously, blighted properties take a lot of time and money to become livable again and it doesn’t happen overnight, but this seems like an absurd ratio. 

One of the craziest parts is the fact that relative to a further back post-Katrina New Orleans, the problem has actually gotten a lot better. Per the New Orleans government’s dedicated web page on homelessness, “In 2011, New Orleans had over 6,500 people who were homeless, making the city’s rate of homelessness is the highest in the United States. That same year, the City released a 10-year plan to end homelessness. By following this plan, the number of homeless in New Orleans has lowered by 85% since 2011.”. They also show that New Orleans’ rate of homelessness per 1000 people is smaller than many big American cities like Seattle, Philadelphia, New York, DC, and LA. So why does it anecdotally feel like such a problem?

One of the biggest reasons is that the homeless population congregates around the downtown area, where they’re more likely to run into tourists who have money, so just by the eye test it looks really bad in those areas. French Quarter and CBD employees and residents have noticed the uptick in recent years. 

Both more specifically, and paradoxically broadly (as in not just specific to New Orleans), the majority of homeless people are men. There are a a couple of reasons for this. Men are more likely to partake in systems that chew up and spit out their associates, including veterans, many of whom struggle with adjusting to civilian life and suffer from a high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder. Another example is a prison, in which men are far more likely to go, and once again, prisoners have a hard time adjusting to civilian life once they are released and many unfortunately end up homeless as a result of that. Education is another one of these systems, though not quite in the same way. There is a heavy correlation between lack of education and homelessness, and men are statistically more likely to drop out of school than women. Additionally, men are less likely to seek treatment for mental health issues or substance abuse due to toxic masculinity, and that may lead them to the streets at a higher rate. 

In a world where we have far more vacant properties than homeless people and the means to deal with the problem, why haven’t we? We instead see subsequent problems like anti-homeless architecture, and people dehumanizing the homeless, complaining about them like they’re just a nuisance to be rid of, rather than actual people who have been forced onto the streets by extenuating circumstances. In an article detailing French Quarter businesses complaining about homeless people, an actual homeless person interviewed said the following. “It seems like we are almost like a burden and we are just trying to do our thing. We are just trying to live. That would be the best thing more housing programs for people… My main thing is I would really like to have a place. I wish there were more housing programs.” (Killion 2019). 


This man was unhoused on Easter Sunday. Looking at people like him as a person with nowhere to go is a great first step in destigmatizing the homeless

So how do we actually get homeless men off the streets in a humane way and eliminate the root of the problem? Below I will outline multiple smaller, data-driven solutions that are compatible with one another and can be combined in a plan for the city of New Orleans to reduce its homeless population. I should also mention that New Orleans’ city government has already implemented a ten-year plan to reduce the homeless population, and seeing the eighty percent decrease since 2011, it has worked, so it can be done in tandem with this as well. Broadly, the ten-year homeless plan from the city government has programs to get people immediate (temporary) housing assistance, and then to link them to resources at all levels of government to move them into a more permanent situation. My plan follows the same broad structure.

I’ve touched on it briefly throughout this paper, but humanizing the homeless and putting a name to their face actually has proven to help efforts within the community. Built for Zero, a grassroots movement with over ninety chapters dedicated to ending homelessness has found this to work with their plans. It also helps them create more of a data-driven solution. To elaborate, I’ll pull a quote from their site. “For many years, communities measured their homeless population with anonymous annual aggregate counts. While this is still common practice, Built for Zero is proving that taking the time and effort to create By-Name Lists is what will ultimately make the difference in housing the chronically homeless and homeless veterans”. A By-Name list, as the name suggests, is a more detailed list of homeless people in a community than a a general survey of the streets. Surveys are distributed to homeless people, asked by volunteers, to know their exact situation, what kind of assistance they need, where they’re located, and how they can find housing. This allows the group to formulate a plan on a case-by-case basis and actually put in concrete measures, as opposed to broader sweeping ones. Homelessness is not a one size fits all problem, as people are there for different reasons, and it should be treated as such. 

Another smaller scope measure that can help reduce homelessness actually started at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, is a hospitality job program. Right when the pandemic shut everything down, some major cities, including New Orleans, put homeless people in newly vacant hotel rooms (no one was traveling at the time) in order to mitigate the spread of COVID that may have otherwise happened in homeless encampments where social distancing wasn’t possible. I say we bring back a slightly altered version of this program that can be used alongside a by-name list. Once we have a list of homeless people who are willing and able to work and fit some other forms of criteria, we offer them a hospitality job in a hotel in exchange for a room and some sort of salary, reduced from that of your average hotel worker ave that they’re getting a room. 


This way, we can motivate men to get out of the vicious cycle of some of the systems that have done them wrong over their lifetimes, give them clean clothes in the form of employee uniforms, a roof over their heads, and a shower with it, and arguably most importantly, an address they can provide to other jobs they apply to. This is not meant to be a forever solution but rather is just meant to help homeless people transition off the streets and into the workforce, and this program gives them a transition period and some of the resources needed in order to find a job and provide for themselves and their dependents. It also serves to humanize the homeless by putting them in the public eye as hard-working people. Hospitality is an incredibly difficult industry to work in, and showing people that the homeless are just people with the capability to do that is one step in showing others that they’re not any different from you or me.

This is a data-driven solution that has been tested before, but not to this degree. Plenty of cities show that putting them in hotels was more effective than problematic shelters, but this is admittedly a new frontier. If I were to submit this as a proposal to City Hall or the New Orleans government, I would combine the use of by-name searches to consolidate all the homeless people who are able and willing to work in a hotel. From there, I would send representatives to their locations and offer them these jobs. In order to have these jobs secured, I would partner with various hotels throughout the city and give them monetary incentives that would subsidize the cost of the homeless people living in their hotel, and also frame it as good PR for them. From there, the people who are unable or unwilling to go along with this policy will be incorporated into New Orleans’ ten-year plan and provided assistance in other ways, this is merely an addition to that broader umbrella that has proven to be effective.

In short, connecting people to all levels of government and providing for them individually rather than making a one size fits all plan has proven effective in reducing homelessness, and that would be the plan outlined in surveying homeless people one by one and enabling them to work with a room, shower, and address for job applications. 


Works Cited

Unity NOLA. “Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness – Unity of Greater New Orleans.” Unity New Orleans, 2011,


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