The New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance Sept. 4 that bans tents, couches and other "obstructions" from public rights of way, including streets, sidewalks, neutral grounds and green spaces next to sidewalks. Following the clearing of a tent city under the Pontchartrain Expressway last month, District B City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell introduced the measure at the request of Mayor Mitch Landrieu. The proposal received approval from the council's Community Development Committee on Sept. 3.
The New Orleans Health Department gave notice to the several dozen people who were living under the overpass on Aug. 12, and beginning Aug. 14 the area was closed. At the council committee meeting, Health Department Director Charlotte Parent said the area had become a public health concern, with rat infestations and no sanitation. (The city later announced that more than 80 people were sheltered after the area was closed.)
District E Councilman James Gray warned that the ordinance — despite the urging of the City Attorney's Office and Health Department — unfairly targets homeless people by specifically defining those obstructions. He argued that obstructing public rights of way already is illegal. Council President Stacy Head added that the additional definitions also would apply to "Phish fans" and "fraternity boys making outdoor living rooms" on St. Charles Avenue.
At the council's Sept. 4 meeting, Gray and District C Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey voted against the ordinance. "A vote for it in my mind appears to be an attack on the homeless," Gray said. "That is the wrong message for us to send."
The ordinance also prohibits "obstructions" even if they are not blocking a right of way but are simply in a public space.