SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - Changing one life at a time is the goal of a group of organizations in Northwest Louisiana who are working together with one mission: that no individual or family has to experience homelessness.
The group, Hope Connections, has reduced homelessness by using methods that just years ago was not the norm.
Unlocking an apartment door may not seem like a big deal, but for Shreveport Dayna Miller, it's something she doesn't take for granted.
"It is little, but it is mine," Miller said with a smile.
Two years and what feels like a lifetime ago, having a safe place of her own was something she only dreamt about.
"I went from being a homeless addict to I'm pretty stable now, my life is pretty good," said Miller.
But getting to where she is now, wasn't an easy journey.
"You literally have nothing, just the clothes on your back," she explained. "You go to the places that are feeding that day and it is amazing to have a kitchen where I can cook my own food and not have to stand in a line to get handouts."
At first she lived in a tent, then an abandoned parking garage and eventually slept on a sidewalk.
"It is just a horrible experience to be homeless," she said. "It is degrading to beg for change. Your self respect is gone, your self worth is gone, your self esteem is gone, it is just a horrible experience to be homeless."
As an addict with mental health issues, it was hard for Miller to pull herself out of her situation.
"This is your way of life and all you can do everyday is try to survive and get through the day," she explained.
But one day she heard something life-changing.
"We had heard from other homeless people that Hope Connections was just giving out keys to apartments," Miller said. "I was like, well I want some keys!"
Miller found her way to Shreveport non-profit Hope Connections, where she was connected with services that led to getting her own furnished apartment, completing rehab, and getting a job.
"I don't think the general public or the general homeless population realizes how much help is really out there," said Miller.
However, her situation may have turned out differently if she had sought help before 2010, because of changes in federal policy. The biggest change is the transition from the old way of thinking called "housing readiness" to the new way of thinking called "housing first." With housing readiness, a homeless person dealt with their addictions first, before being eligible for housing. With that policy, Dayna would not have been housed right away. But with housing first, a homeless person gets housed without pre-conditions.
Jennifer Ho is a senior adviser for "HUD" Housing Services, "What we found is once people stably housed, some of the problems they had on the street went away," said Ho. "People are seeing that it works and they understand when you don't do it, you have a costly system and people are still homeless," Ho explained.
According to Ho, housing the homeless actually costs less tax payer dollars than if left on the streets, getting arrested for nuisance crimes or using the emergency room.
"You are going from being homeless to a home of your own and then from there, being able to tackle other challenges and live out your hopes and dreams," said Ho.
HUD also only accepts one application from each community now, instead of giving grants to several non-profits fighting homelessness. HUD former assistant secretary Mark Johnston says Hope Connections has done well working together.
"We really want a community to solve the problem, so you actually have to work together," said Johnston. "It changed the dynamic completely about addressing homelessness versus let's try to reduce it and eventually end it."
According to Hope Connections statistics, since 2012, the total homeless population in Shreveport-Bossier has been cut in half. Street outreach coordinator Chelsie Liegey and other street outreach workers are on the front lines of getting the homeless off the streets.
"We are extremely grateful that we have such a great partnership with all of the agencies that work with homelessness in our area," said Liegey.
The street outreach team allowed KSLA News 12 to tag along as they delivered supplies like MRE's, fresh water, and blankets to some homeless people living in camps and under bridges.
"We engage them, we create relationships with them, build trust and eventually hopefully get them into services, meaning getting them into this building, getting them connected to the services they are needing," said Liegey.
Building trust is exactly how Liegey helped Miller take steps to change her life.
"We have contact all the time now," Liegey said of Miller. "Yeah we do!," Miller agreed, laughing.
To reflect on how far she's come, Dayna showed us where she spent some of her darkest days.
"I have not been back here since I left," Miller said while walking into an abandoned parking garage, that at one time was her only shelter. "It is really, it is odd, I don't really have words for it," she answered, after we asked her how it felt.
She slept on a dirty concrete floor without a blanket, while she stayed there.
"I think it is crazy looking at this thinking, I used to live like this," she said pointing to a graffiti covered wall. Miller discovered a mattress while there, she explained seeing the mattress hurts her to know someone is living the life that used to be hers. "It makes me feel very sad for them not only knowing what it is like but knowing there is a better way to live," she explained.
"There is help out there and they don't have to be in there right now, they could have housing if they just know the right resources to use."
Both Miller and Liegey get emotional talking about the journey they've walked together.
"It makes me realize we can't take things for granted in life," said Miller.
Now, instead of focusing on surviving day-to-day in the streets, Miller can now focus on her future.
"I couldn't be happier," Miller said, sitting on her sofa with a smile. For her, having a place to call home made all the difference.
Federal agencies and organizations are taking notice of how well the different organizations have been able to unite for one cause. Hope Connections received recognition for their efforts at a state-wide conference in Baton Rouge in April.
"We look to Louisiana quite a bit in the way they have been able to build systems and work together," said U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness Regional Coordinator Robert Pulster.
To contact Hope Connections, you can visit their website here, or use one of the following methods.
Physical Address -
2350 Levy Street, Shreveport LA 71103
Mailing Address -
P.O. Box 37148, Shreveport, LA 71133