New Orleans homeless ordinance has agencies scrambling

Alex Woodward on the city and private response to a new ordinance banning “obstructions” on city streets



Patrick Lemaire waits for his partner, Trudy, on the edge of the grass around Lee Circle. When she returns, they'll split a pizza and a pack of cigarettes, and after sundown, sleep under a nearby parking garage. He's followed the same schedule nearly every day since he became homeless earlier this year. Lemaire, a former Marine and construction worker, spends most days near Lee Circle, a few blocks from the Pontchartrain Expressway overpass where city officials have made attempts to break up the "tent city" where a few dozen homeless people have camped. "That's no way to live," Lemaire says.

  In August, the New Orleans Health Department cleared out a much larger "tent city" near the Union Passenger Terminal, citing sanitation and public health and safety issues. City officials announced more than 80 people from the camp were given shelter that night and 110 were placed in supportive housing. On Sept. 4, the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance, introduced by District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, that specifically bans tents, couches and other "obstructions" from public rights of way, even if they're not obstructing traffic. On Sept. 10, city employees visited the "new" camp at Camp and Calliope streets, reminded those living there of the new law — and told them to leave the area within 72 hours.

  A week later, a handful of tents and more than a dozen people remained.

  Opponents of the new measure (including District E Councilman James Gray) say it's unfair; it targets the homeless while the city has not provided a framework for supporting them, and it doesn't provide a means of enforcement. City officials have urged homeless people to connect with available resources through its Interagency Council on Homelessness — but shelters and services already are spread thin, especially as the ban on tent cities has forced more homeless people into shelters. Many people living on the street suffer from mental health issues and addiction, preventing them from attaining housing in shelters, while others refuse those services because of shame or a hope that housing may be easier to find outside the "system," which puts them among many others seeking housing and employment in a city with few options for either.

  City employees returned to the Camp and Calliope camp Sept. 16 to remind people there that the tents had to go. Scott, a man who lives with the dozen people and several tents at the camp where a New Orleans Saints banner hangs, also said Volunteers of America staff have visited looking for veterans, but that the camp is peaceable.

  "There have been no problems," he says. "No chaos."

Last week, a New Orleans Police Department officer issued Lemaire a citation for trespassing at Lee Circle before the landmark officially opened at sunrise. Lemaire had to settle it with Orleans Parish Municipal Court's "homeless court." There, he was connected with Volunteers of America, which had been looking for him. He said he hopes the group can find him housing this week. "Now, I've just got to make it through the weekend," he says.

  Lemaire has been in and out of homelessness for several years. He has been out of work since he had a heart attack and surgery. After he left the hospital, he sold his truck and construction tools, and his depression spiraled into drug and alcohol dependency, though he says he now is drug-free. "I only had one beer today," he says. "That's better than usual."

  Lemaire says he's anxious to get back to work. "I'm like Tim Taylor [of TV's Home Improvement] whenever I walk by a work site and hear a Skil saw," he says, laughing.

  According to a May report from homeless advocacy group Unity of Greater New Orleans, 1,981 people in the area were homeless on March 31, a "point in time" snapshot to estimate the number of homeless people in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish: 818 were unsheltered, and 597 were in emergency shelters. Unity's report counted a 15 percent drop from its 2013 snapshot of 2,337 people, and an 83 percent drop from 2007's 11,619 people.

  In 2013, the New Orleans Mission entered more than 2,500 people into the Homeless Management Information System, a database shared by the Mission, Ozanam Inn and the Salvation Army. Following the city's eviction of tent city residents, the Mission took in 32 people — 20 of whom had never been to the shelter before. Of those 32 people, 14 have stayed.

  "To me that's good," says New Orleans Mission Director David Bottner. "If it was one (person), it would be good. And this is just one shelter." The Mission currently houses 234 people and has 32 beds for women.

  "The face of homelessness is not someone on the street in a drunken stupor," says Mission assistant Claire Proctor. "It's women who have escaped abusive relationships with or without their kids, people who have been so traumatized by situations that they can't believe life can get any better. They're in a state of hopelessness." Mission also offers veterans' support, financial literacy classes, health clinics and serves more than 600 meals a day.

  According to Unity, it has housed more than 50 homeless veterans since July. This follows Mayor Mitch Landrieu's call to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2014, and help find housing within 30 days for additional homeless veterans identified by Unity. This fall, The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) also will make vouchers available to homeless people and families currently in supportive housing programs to transition to more permanent housing. HANO then will fill those now-empty slots with homeless veterans.

Juston Winfield, 25, a homeless man who lives at Camp and Calliope, said he is frustrated with the lack of support from city services, but doesn't want to seek shelter at places like the Mission. "We don't really have anywhere to go," he says.

  Winfield and others at the camp say its members look out for each other. Lemaire admits living on the street is dangerous ("The best advice I ever got was to take the first $2.65 and buy an icepick from the hardware store," he says). But he doesn't want to separate from Trudy, and most shelters have separate housing for men and women.

  Bottner says people who are reluctant to enter the shelter "system" also are likely resistant to make changes in their behavior or have unaddressed mental health issues. The Mission also has a zero tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol ("They can come in that condition but they can't continue the next day," Bottner says), and many people don't want to face shelter rules.

  "They're waiting for an apartment, but what about change?" Bottner says. "We have 250 guests a night, a lot of volunteers and staff to help. When you take thousands of people and spread them into the community and housing, the medical and emotional healing they need is very difficult. ... What we need to do as a community is encourage men and women to receive safe, good shelter, and (homeless people) would qualify for housing the same way anyone else [does]. That's a dilemma."

  Local shelters not only are responding to a population of homeless people forced to move from the overpass, but a population of transient homeless who recently have relocated to New Orleans.

  "It's friendly, there are a lot of freedoms here a lot of other cities don't allow, then there's the other part," Bottner says. "They get the word out where services are connected, and they come. That's a big part of it. There's a catch-22: you've got great services, you hear about it from another town, there are tents under the bridge, 'I can get fed, I can drink on the street, and on top of that, if I get sick, they'll take care of me, and if I can get an apartment, there's an option.'"

  In 2011, Landrieu released the city's "Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness" and the formation of the New Orleans Interagency Council on Homelessness. The plan included a three-pronged mission to end veterans' homelessness within five years, chronic homelessness within 10, and family homelessness within 15. The plan included a 24-hour resource center through the new VA hospital complex, using a "housing first" approach to outreach and increasing the number of available beds, among other tactics.

Opponents of the recent obstruction ordinance say that measure is a step in the wrong direction. Activist Elizabeth Cook, who has helped organize meetings and press announcements about the encampment, said in a Sept. 11 statement, "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."

  Gray says the council's proponents admit the ordinance is an imperfect plan and say they will draft a timeline to enact its rules and regulations. "We haven't done that yet," Gray says. "I've not participated in those discussions. I don't recall discussion of a timeline.

  "I hope (homeless people) have enough advocates — someone's going to tell someone to refuse to move, and what do you do next?" he says. "Aside from the fact that no matter how we phrase it, it looks to the world that we're making an attack on the homeless. The other thing is that we haven't thought out the next part of the plan."

  In a Sept. 2 letter supporting Cantrell's "obstruction" ordinance, Unity of Greater New Orleans Director Martha Kegel warned of the tent city's potential to harbor sexual assaults and drug trafficking.

  "If we have a community ... where openly there was drug abuse, rape, physical violence, if we knew of that, we would immediately dispatch the police and break that up," Bottner says. "(In a shelter), they're safe and they're not going to be subjected to violence. When they're sick, they're rushed to the hospital. ... What happens under the bridge?"

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