NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Darren Dalpiaz has trouble remembering things. It's a side effect, the 48-year-old veteran said, of a severe head injury he suffered while in the Army. He also has social anxiety disorder. Together, they make it hard for him to hold down a job or even make it to appointments.
Dalpiaz had been homeless for 10 years, wandering the streets in New Orleans and beyond and struggling to survive. But now he's among 11 chronically homeless veterans with apartments in the old Sacred Heart convent and school in Mid-City.
"It's so wonderful," he said, misty-eyed, sitting on his new couch in his brand-new apartment. "Until this moment, I didn't think this was going to happen. It's the best Christmas ever, because I've got a home for Christmas."
Unity of Greater New Orleans teamed with Catholic Charities and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to move some of the city's most vulnerable homeless veterans into the complex on Canal Street.
The building, a nursing home before Hurricane Katrina, will eventually house a mix of disabled veterans, formerly homeless people and tenants earning at most half the area's median income.
Eventually it will hold 109 apartments, from efficiencies to two bedrooms, and will have a sunroom, a computer lab, a courtyard and parking. Fifty-five apartments will be for homeless people with disabilities.
When Dalpiaz moved in, Sheetrock dust speckled the halls. Temporary walls closed off most of the building. So far, the organizations have an occupancy permit for one-third of the apartments.
"This is such an emergency in terms of homeless veterans that we didn't want to waste even a moment" getting them in, said Martha Kegel, director of Unity of Greater New Orleans, holding the door open for a new tenant. "We got them in as soon as we had our permit of occupancy."
The veterans who moved in on Dec. 19 all had been homeless at least a year and averaged 10 years on the streets, Kegel said. To find them, Unity members scoured the streets and local shelters, interviewing and keeping tabs on veterans they thought were most at risk.
Some, like Dalpiaz, would disappear for long periods. Others had immediate needs for things like medication.
"They all have mental or physical disabilities and sometimes both," Kegel said. "Sometimes it's related to (military) service and sometimes not."
Because homelessness is so often linked to mental or physical disability, on-site case managers will help tenants with things like medical appointments and, when appropriate, help them reconnect with their families, Kegel said.
Dalpiaz said he hopes his caseworker will help him relearn basic skills, such as living indoors.
"We'll give them whatever they need to be stable and improve their health, with the goal being that they will never be homeless again," Kegel said. "This is their forever home."
SAVING HISTORIC PROPERTY
The project, part of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's campaign to end homelessness in New Orleans, is serving two other needs for Mid-City, said Jeanne Reaux-Connor, director of housing development for Unity. The area desperately needs affordable housing, and the project is saving an important old neighborhood building, she said.
Built in 1908 as the Sacred Heart convent and school, the 87,505-square-foot property was badly damaged during Hurricane Katrina.
"We need this housing for the homeless, and the building ... is not in great shape," Reaux-Connor said when she announced the project at a Mid-City Neighborhood Organization in November. "It needs rehabbing."
Now, Kegel said, "These apartments are ones that anyone would be proud to live in."
Fifty-four apartments will be for people who aren't homeless but cannot afford good housing in the area.
"They are for people making modest wages who are the backbone of the economy," Kegel said. "They're the teachers, maids, janitors, sales clerks, waiters and other people who support the functions of the medical and tourism industries. They're the people we completely rely on to make society work but who can't afford today's high rents."
They'll pay more than the disabled and homeless, but those two groups will pay what they can. One-third of all income from jobs or veterans disability benefits, for example, will go to rent, Kegel said.
The Sacred Heart Apartments are part of a larger success story: homelessness fell this year to pre-Katrina levels, officials said.
A LONG WAY TO GO
Still, the latest count shows 1,981 homeless people in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.
Billy Holmes, also among the complex's first tenants, said those people include friends he made living under downtown bridges.
"It's not going to be complete for me until I don't have to worry about them anymore, until they have shelter," said Holmes, 46, who joined the Navy in 1987 and has been homeless on and off for the past 10 years. "We've been through it, leaning on each other, helping each other. I just can't completely rest my mind."
Holmes pledged to continue working to educate people about the problem of homelessness in the city.
Dalpiaz has more modest goals. First, he plans to get a little dog, to help with his anxiety. Then, he wants to reconnect with his daughter and to hold his grandchildren for the first time.
He said he called his daughter before he moved in, to tell her he was no longer homeless.
"She started crying," he said. "And now she and my grandbabies can come and see me."
Information from: The New Orleans Advocate, http://www.neworleansadvocate.com