Rosa F. Keller Building Provides Apartments For Homeless

31 May 2012

Woodward completed construction on 2222 Tulane Avenue, the Rosa F. Keller Building, in April 2012. The Times Picayune profiles a new resident of the building, which offers support services and affordable housing for those coming out of homelessness.

The Times-Picayune

Unity of Greater New Orleans opens 60-unit building for homeless

The Times-Picayune

31 May 2012

By Katy Reckdahl | The Times Picayune

Johnnie Suer had a malignant tumor on his forehead so big that he felt “like a unicorn,” and he was homeless. The New Orleans native went through a series of three surgeries beginning in November that left dents in his skull, and each time he left the hospital he went back to sleeping in his late-model minivan, parked on Dumaine Street in the 6th Ward.

But on Tuesday, Suer, 57, became the first tenant in a brand-new, 60-unit building at Tulane Avenue and Galvez Street, christened The Rosa F. Keller Building after the social activist. It’s owned by UNITY of Greater New Orleans, which will provide on-site caseworkers to half of its tenants, including Suer.

The remaining tenants will be working-poor renters who earn less than half of the area’s median income, about $21,700 for a one-person household.

The $17 million Keller building is a departure from UNITY’s usual strategy. For several years, UNITY has provided social services to a few thousand disabled, formerly homeless people who live in private apartments rented with federal subsidies. But the Keller’s bricks and mortar are owned by UNITY.

The concept comes from a national nonprofit called Community Solutions, which had its first successes renovating derelict hotels in New York’s Times Square 20 years ago. A few years before Hurricane Katrina, Kurt Weigel from the Downtown Development District contacted the nonprofit’s founder, Rosanne Haggerty, with hopes of bringing her expertise to New Orleans.

Community Solutions, which is co-sponsoring UNITY’s work on the Keller building, has found that supportive-housing buildings are a better solution for frail homeless people, Haggerty said. “For some people with very serious health care needs, it’s really beneficial to be in a place with a little more support,” she said.

Haggerty began her work by doing a careful renovation of the historic Times Square Hotel; the Keller building’s neat architecture follows in that tradition and deliberately so, she said. “If people are in a building that’s well-designed and well-maintained, they feel a little bit of hope about the way their life can proceed.”

UNITY plans to open several more buildings in coming years. Three are renovations of abandoned facilities for the elderly. One on Louisiana Avenue will begin construction in July and open in 2013. Another, on Canal Street in the former Malta Square at Sacred Heart Church, will follow shortly after. A fourth site, on Esplanade Avenue near Broad Street, has been making its way through the process more slowly because some neighbors have raised objections.

UNITY is also moving through a federal approval process to develop more than 100 apartments on the decommissioned naval air station off Poland Avenue in the Upper 9th Ward.

Suer knows the city well because he worked as an insurance agent and collected premiums in person from customers. After his first night on Dumaine, he emerged from his van to see a familiar face. “I know you — you used to be my insurance man,” said the woman.
For several months, her family watched out for him and his van and let him use their bathroom. But the family is moving at the end of the month, just as Suer will begin radiation treatments. Things looked dire.

“We had to find something for him,” said outreach worker Brandi Girard, who screened him using the agency’s “vulnerability index,” which ranks people for housing based upon the likelihood that they’ll die on the street without it. Because of his dire condition, Suer rose to the top of UNITY’s list of people — now 1,500 names long — who have been proved to be severely disabled and homeless. He landed a slot in the Keller building.

In coming days, Suer hopes to be joined by his van, which recently conked out and is still parked on Dumaine. That parking spot was good to him, he said, but he hopes to soon see it only through his rear-view mirror. “I was always taught to keep moving forward,” he said.

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