Following last month's clearing of a "tent city" under the Pontchartrain Expressway overpass and last week's passage of an ordinance
to ban tents and sofas from streets and rights of way, New Orleans health department staff handed out vacate notices to people living under another encampment under the overpass at Camp and Calliope streets.
Yesterday afternoon, several homeless people had organized a brief press conference to protest the passage of a New Orleans City Council ordinance that further banned obstructions from public rights of way by specifically defining those obstructions as sofas, tents and other belongings from intersections, neutral grounds, sidewalks and streets. A few hours later, those people were ordered to leave within 72 hours.
In August, a much larger “tent city” under the Expressway near the Union Passenger Terminal also was broken up by the health department, which cited sanitation and public safety issues. City officials said it found shelter for 84 people living there, while several other people moved more than a dozen tents to the Camp and Calliope overpass. Many others say they have been turned away from shelters due to lack of space, and the city has not offered any support to those left behind. Others, like Patrick Lemaire and Trudy, who don't live at the encampment, are forced to separate at shelters and remain on the streets. "I don’t think they’ll ever get rid of tent city — there'll be a tent city somewhere," said Lemaire, who has been homeless since a heart attack and hospitalization left him unable to pay his bills or work. "Three days after I got out the hospital my truck broke up. I sold all my tools, sold my truck for scrap. I haven’t been doing too well since then."
Lemaire and his partner Trudy sleep under a parking garage downtown and spend most days moving from one place to eat to another. He says they have been turned away from local shelters because the shelters don't accommodate couples. "I don't want to be separated," he said.
"I don’t think they’ll ever get rid of tent city — there'll be a tent city somewhere." — Patrick Lemaire
The ordinance had the support of homeless outreach organization Unity of Greater New Orleans, which wrote in a Sept. 3 statement that encampments "jeopardize public health" and often become a "cover" for drug dealers and vulnerable to sexual assaults. Activist Elizabeth Cook, who has helped organize meetings and press announcements about the encampment, said in a Sept. 11 statement, “If the city cannot provide the resources for affordable, decent housing for low income workers, those on disability, and those struggling with addiction, what recourse do these folks have? The tent encampments are a symptom of the problem, and reflection of a crisis in housing here in New Orleans, and the Mayor's and the City Council's answer, with the exception of two dissenting City Council votes, is simply to evict the encampments before the necessary resources are developed to insure that human rights are not being violated.”
Juston Winfield, a 25-year-old homeless man living at the encampment since early this year, said the city and services like Unity of Greater New Orleans have not reached out to people living there. "We haven’t had any reliable assistance in any way," he said, adding that he and others are worried that homeless people will become targets for NOPD for loitering or trespassing under the new ordinance. "We already don’t have anywhere to go, the shelters are full. ... There aren’t many jobs in the city hiring. ... Without tents, really I have no idea. It seems it’d be illegal for me to be on the sidewalk."
In a Sept. 11 statement to Gambit
, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's communications director Garnesha Crawford said "last night, the City began to actively notify the public of the new laws that allow for the removal of tents, furniture and other items in order to keep public spaces clean, safe and accessible. To the extent this amendment affects our homeless population, the City will continue to inform the public that all identified obstructions must be removed from public rights-of-way within 72 hours of notice and to transition those who are camped in areas across the city into clean and safe shelter."
The city also wants to link homeless people with the 60 service providers working with the city.
"Do we really want a storage somewhere where we’re holding blankets and tents of homeless people? Do we really want to seize a sleeping bag on a cold winter night?" — District E councilman James Gray
At the Sept. 4 City Council meeting, which passed the "obstruction" ordinance introduced by District B councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, there were two opposing votes: District C councilwoman Nadine Ramsey and District E councilman James Gray. Gray called the ordinance "an attack on the homeless." Proponents of the measure admitted it's an imperfect plan and would return to review how to enforce rules and regulations. Today, Gray told Gambit
that, "If you’re going to put together a plan to deal with the problem, you need to look at the plan as one unit. You cant make a good decision with the left half of the plan until you’ve looked at that right half."
Gray said there has not yet been a timeline for City Council discussion for drafting that plan, and he said it will require guidance from the health department. Gray also is concerned about the city's seizure of homeless property. "Do we really want a storage somewhere where we’re holding blankets and tents of homeless people?" he said. "Do we really want to seize a sleeping bag on a cold winter night? Since we haven’t gotten to those details, we haven’t given thought to them, and once we do, we might need to take a much harder look at this. Right now it’s not cold outside but the constitution still applies."