For months, April Coleman had been living in fear.
The New Orleanian had been taking temporary jobs and working at Wal-Mart, trying to support her four young children. But when bills piled up and she missed work due to lack of childcare, she lost her housing.
Last month, a friend who had been letting her stay announced she could no longer offer her a home. Coleman then was forced to live in shelters with her kids, all under the age of 7.
“I was afraid,” said Coleman, 34. “I was afraid I would never get no help.”
Coleman found some relief Wednesday, however, thanks to Grace at the Greenlight, a nonprofit program that helps secure housing for homeless people by connecting them with family or friends.
The mood was jovial Wednesday as Coleman stood at the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, awaiting a bus to take her to meet a cousin in Phoenix, Arizona.
Coleman marked the 1,000th person sent off to live with family or friends through the organization’s “I’m Going Home” program.
As she held a bag of sandwiches and snacks provided to her by the organization, her kids ran around the terminal and smiled for cameras.
“I have a lot of visions,” Coleman said, when asked about her future now.
Often, the family members or friends the organization finds are long estranged from the person in need. In Coleman’s case, she was reuniting with a cousin she hadn’t seen since Hurricane Katrina but had often talked to on the phone.
She had long wanted to take her kids to stay in Arizona, she said, but she didn’t have the money to get there — until Grace at the Greenlight stepped in, after being contacted by a shelter where she had stayed.
Grace at the Greenlight was formed by Chris Beary, a native New Orleanian and a local attorney, CPA and entrepreneur.
The idea came to him after he spent years traveling under the Pontchartrain Expressway several times a week. He would always feel compelled to hand out food or money to the homeless people camping under the elevated highway.
Eventually, Beary figured it would be more productive to start a charity organization, according to spokeswoman Sam White. So he started by opening a kitchen in a Central City storefront, where he served breakfast every day.
“He wanted to do something more. He saw the need that had to be fulfilled, and he was going to serve it,” White said.
Three years later, the organization — which is run by just four staff members — can claim a big impact.
After outgrowing the storefront, it moved to Living Witness Church on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. As of July, Grace at the Greenlight had served more than 65,000 meals and 225,000 bottles of water, White said.
The “I’m Going Home” initiative, the one that helped Coleman, is the organization’s most touted program. For roughly $250 a person, it provides documentation, transportation and a “care bag” to people who are sent to live with friends or family members matched to them, staff said.
“We believe that everyone deserves the chance to go home again,” said Sarah Parks, the organization’s executive director. “Sometimes, the path home begins with a hot meal in a clean setting that offers comfort, dignity and respect.”
The “I’m Going Home” program is successful, according to White, largely because follow-ups are done with the formerly homeless people upon their arrival, after one week, after one month and again at three months after they reach their new home.
So far, only 5 percent of the participants have been found back on the streets after three months’ time, White said.
The program is one of many efforts to reduce the number of homeless people in the New Orleans area in recent years — a push that both city officials and directors of local nonprofit organizations say has paid off.
According to the latest UNITY of Greater New Orleans Annual Point in Time survey, conducted on one night in January, there were about 1,300 homeless people in Orleans and Jefferson parishes combined at that time.
Martha Kegel, the executive director of UNITY, said that number was down from the previous year, when 1,626 homeless people were counted in a 24-hour period.
The number has been reduced by 89 percent since January 2007, when 11,600 homeless individuals were counted.
In a column this year in The New Orleans Advocate, however, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said it was urgent that agencies continue to work together in combating homelessness in New Orleans.
Last year, 44 homeless people died on the streets, authorities reported, while others struggle to get the care they need.
Landrieu said a chronically homeless person on the streets costs taxpayers $20,000 to $50,000 per year in services, including the cost of encounters with EMS or police or time spent in jail. Taxpayers bear additional costs to clean the areas beneath the expressway, he added.
Some people think most people living on the streets are there because of some sort of substance abuse. And in some such cases, White said, there is resistance to change or treatment programs.
But often, she added, homelessness can result from something as simple as bad luck.
“Most are just like you or I, but they lost their job and housing, and it just turned into a snowball effect,” White said.
In his editorial, Landrieu agreed.
“Many are working poor, disabled or have other health problems,” he wrote about the city’s homeless population. “These people are not nameless, faceless strangers. They are in fact our brothers and sisters, friends, family and neighbors.”