Louisiana cut its homeless numbers during the pandemic; they’re back up again
Rising rents place housing out of reach for many, advocates say
Vauchel Cojoe was forced to live in her car and eventually under an overpass in New Orleans after an injury in an auto accident kept her from working as a cab driver. She has since found an apartment through UNITY of Greater New Orleans. (Photo by Susan Poag)
Vauchel Cojoe, a former cab driver in Uptown New Orleans, found herself living under an overpass for several months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was overwhelming for me,” Cojoe said. “My mental health was kicked in… I’d be depressed a lot.”
Cojoe was considered an essential worker during the pandemic, but an injury from an auto accident prevented her from working. As bills started piling up, she was forced to sleep in her car, then eventually under an overpass.
“I had to give up using a bathroom and not taking a shower. I couldn’t get with it,” she said. “I couldn’t adapt to that. It was about to drive me crazy.”
Seven months later, an outreach team at a local shelter made contact with Cojoe and found a spot for her in their shelter.
“This was a God-sent place right here. I just couldn’t take no more, I was just like, ‘I need help. I need help,’” she said.
Like Cojoe, many Louisianans are having trouble finding affordable housing coming out of the pandemic. Service providers and advocates are seeing “dramatic increases in homelessness” across Louisiana, said Cashuana Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center.
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Housing advocates listed several factors as to why homelessness rates have not dropped at the same rate as unemployment as Louisiana moves out of the pandemic. One is the massive increase in rental rates across the state.
“Before the pandemic, rents were typically increasing across the state by about 2% per year,” Hill said. “Now, they’re going up at rates of 10-20% per year.”
Since the pandemic, rents have seen dramatic increases in the following markets:
- Baton Rouge 22%
- Metairie 24%
- Lafayette 22%
- New Orleans 9%
Source: Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center
Rent hikes in Louisiana follow a national trend of sharp increases. Lease rates have climbed 14.1% nationwide since January after increasing 17.5% over the course of 2021, according to an Apartment List report.
A lack of eviction protections for renters is another reason homelessness is on the rise in Louisiana. Through most of the pandemic, a federal eviction moratorium protected renters even if they couldn’t pay their rent. That moratorium expired after the Supreme Court struck it down in August 2021.
“Landlords could turn around and raise the rent or evict a family as soon as their assistance ended,” Hill said, “and in Louisiana, that was certainly the case.”
Martha Kegel, executive director of Unity of Greater New Orleans, said the number of people without housing has risen and fallen drastically over the past two years. It depends on whether the homeless service organization has access to money to pay for low-cost hotel rooms to get people off the street, she said, and rent assistance for permanent housing.
Orleans and Jefferson parishes combined recorded 1,314 people without housing in January 2020. At the pandemic’s peak, Kegel said Unity was able to whittle the number down all the way to just 30 thanks to grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
When those benefits expired, the number of unsheltered homeless jumped back up to 1,042 in January 2021 and 1,214 in February of this year.
Christa Pazzaglia, executive director of HOPE Connections, a housing advocacy group in Shreveport, said she noticed homelessness numbers there went down during the pandemic, attributing the reduction to funding available at the time. An updated count for Shreveport wasn’t available, but Pazzaglia said she has noticed an increase in recent months.
Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 storm that decimated southeast Louisiana last year, has also contributed to the rise of homelessness. The storm destroyed thousands of homes and left apartment complexes uninhabitable. Many renters were evicted without warning, and hundreds in the Florida Parishes alone are still without homes, according to an Advocate report.
In addition to the storm itself, Ida’s ripple effects include homeowners’ insurance companies raising their rates or pulling out of southeast Louisiana entirely. That’s made housing that much more expensive, Hill said.
“This really makes it difficult for low income and working class homeowners to be able to remain homeowners,” Hill said. “Homelessness has increased and the rising costs of housing have a lot to do with that.”
A statewide assistance program began in early March 2021 with $309 million from a COVID-19 relief package to assist struggling renters and landlords. Louisiana received an additional $244 million in rental assistance from the American Rescue Act earlier this year.
About 81,000 renters and landlords in Caddo, Calcasieu, East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, Lafayette, Orleans and St. Tammany parishes have started applications for emergency rental assistance, according to the state Division of Administration. About 50,000 have been approved.
Among Louisiana’s other 57 parishes, about 78,000 renters and landlords have applied for assistance and 21,000 have been approved.
Applicants could receive rental assistance as soon as three weeks after completing their forms, said Desireé Honoré Thomas, assistant commissioner for the Louisiana Division of Administration.
The state program receives about 1,000 applications a week, Thomas said, adding that emergency rental assistance funds are expected to be 100% allocated by next month.
“We just want people to know the program is still open,” Thomas said. “I know some people are still experiencing difficulties paying rent, as we’re seeing a spike of COVID at the moment.”
Even though Cojoe was able to find a roof over her head, she said she encountered many other New Orleanians, including veterans and families with infants, living on the streets because they can’t find affordable housing.
Cojoe eventually wants to get back into the workforce, but soaring rent and food prices have made that much more difficult, she said.
“Before, I could get me a (two-bedroom) house for $700 to $800. But now they want $1,200 to $1,600 for a one-bedroom (house),” she said.
Despite the challenges, Cojoe said she continues to heal physically and mentally and plans to eventually move into her own home again.
“I see hope now, I can see where I can get my life back on track,” she said.
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