It's 1 p.m. and in the 40s on a Friday, with torrential rain falling. "Got a cigarette?" a stranger asks. Handing one out attracts three men dressed in layer upon layer of clothing. They hold out weather-cracked hands and shake the stranger's hand with firm grasps. Five dollar bills and a few bucks in change are exchanged. If you're under the bridge, you're among the thousands who have remained homeless after returning from a Katrina-imposed exodus nearly 28 months ago.
A newcomer is a stranger in a strange land, but these 200 strangers rely on each other. New people need checking out.
Breakfast can be bought in a nearby diner for $2.30, they say, pointing to a greasy spoon joint. "You can use their bathroom, too."
'We'll give you a hand." Gregory Cohen stands guard over the new guy's stuff as the others help gather his belongings. And with that, in a cold, blowing wind that makes bare hands ache from touching metal tent poles, the cigarette beggars make sure the newcomer gets settled.
'They're serving chicken over there right now," one says, pointing to a second encampment on the upriver side of Canal Street, or, as it's called here, under the bridge. "Don't worry about your stuff. Don't mess with theirs and they won't mess with yours."
About 15 minutes later, Chase Chamberlain and his nephew saunter over. Chase is back home, sort of. Homeless for two years, he's the quiet, unofficial cop in this bizarre place, a world with a survival culture all its own. In this society of the down-and-out, 70 percent are believed to be from southeastern Louisiana the vast majority of them from New Orleans according to the homeless advocacy organization Unity of Greater New Orleans.
Chamberlain is wary of strangers, like most other homeless people. After eyeballing a newcomer and allowing a quick conversation, he says, "Got your back."
That's it. Don't screw him and he's your friend, or at least what passes for friendship here. Everyone is in this together, and if you're cool, you know you're protected. Many of those who have been provided housing come back and spend the day with those they left behind weeks and months ago. They share a bond. Once you've lived here under the bridge, you take part of this culture with you.
There's Janice. Neatly pulled back hair, black leather jacket and matching tall boots, she sits by the grill. She has had her own apartment and a job for months now, thanks to Unity. She was brutally raped while living under the bridge. The attack was so fierce she broke her ankle. She stopped by to visit her friends who are still homeless after she had the cast removed at Charity. "Please don't use my name," she implores. "He's still out there, but I have to check up on my friends."
'Don't mess with that one," Chamberlain tells the newcomer and points to a woman who has been screaming incomprehensibly for 15 minutes while waving a broom in her hand. "We call her Pigeon. Just leave her alone. She stays up all night and sweeps this whole place."
Chamberlain returned to eastern New Orleans as soon as Katrina's waters receded. "Why did I end up under the bridge? After coming back from Baton Rouge, I was living in an apartment in the East and I found a pistol in the stairwell. I tried to give it to the police and they charged me for it. I've been fighting that for two years."
He almost died five weeks ago. Many await prosecution on a wide variety of minor but potentially life-altering charges. Public drunkenness. Soliciting. Street performing without a license. Public urination.
Chamberlain, 53, and his nephew, Ronnie Powe, 48, stay together. Chamberlain was walking down Iberville Street one night "and I heard a "pop.' I thought I had caught a stray bullet. I collapsed on the spot."
Powe says the doctors at Charity's Emergency Room in the storm-closed New Orleans Centre told him that Chamberlain should have died where he fell. Instead, he was able to crawl across Iberville about 60 yards to get help. He bears a 14-inch scar down the middle of his chest from the gunshot wound. It's still purple and stitched. Both are native New Orleanians.
Chamberlain walks the newcomer through the unwritten rules of life under the bridge. It's anarchy; rules evolve as problems arise, and whoever feels the power or has the answer or the means takes charge. Or, if an idea sucks, someone else makes sure that's known, unequivocally.
Chamberlain and hundreds of other homeless relocated under the bridge when city and state officials cleared out the burgeoning tent city that sprouted up in Duncan Plaza, literally right under the office windows of Mayor Ray Nagin and City Council members, after Katrina. City Hall allowed the encampment to grow for more than a year.
One of the people Chamberlain watches, along with Cohen, who lives on a mattress covered with a foot-tall layer of blankets, is young Angel Hayes. Angel arrived in June from Tennessee. Her boyfriend came for construction work. "My ex-old man had worked down here," she says, offering no details. "Killed himself."
She gets a Social Security check and has lived in a red tent since July 4. Her latest boyfriend "came in one day to the room and left me here (under the bridge) and said he was going to the store and he never came back. He went to Orlando."
Angel's family back in Tennessee raised enough money to send her a bus ticket home. She has a child there who has been waiting for her. She suddenly spots several women handing out food and makes a beeline for them.
Four young professional women from Metairie are handing out plates of hot food, about $300 worth that Jill Heigle, 23, a pharmaceutical sales representative, bought at cost from a caterer friend. When Heigle's friends heard what she was doing, they joined in.
Heigle drove by the underpass for the first time the day before. "I was shocked. I had to do something immediately." The twentysomethings are joined by a very large man, a college friend, who stand nearby with crossed arms, smiling and greeting passersby. "Jill told me what she was doing and I thought I better come out," he says. Instead of playing the part of bouncer, he winds up hawking food and engaging folks in conversation.
There are no cops here under the bridge, Chamberlain and others say. "They might walk through once a week, but they're just checking to see who is alright and who isn't," Chamberlain says. NOPD officials did not return phone calls for this story, but denizens of this homeless encampment say they have not been hassled and are treated with respect and courtesy by the NOPD and the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office.
Robert Claverie isn't homeless. He parks his truck across the underpass at Canal Street. Immediately he hands out warm soup and hot chocolate. He's been doing it every day since homeless cities cropped up downtown. Retired, he has been providing the food out of his own pocket for two years.
'It ain't me. It's Jesus. If it weren't for Him I wouldn't be out here talking to you." Claverie says that an association wanted to give him a "hero's" award for his dedication. "Man gives an award. God gives rewards," he says. When the food is gone, he says nothing and drives away.
One of the hot food recipients is James Nixon. As the rains and winds worsen in the late afternoon and temperatures fall, Nixon sits with what appears to be a look of despondent acceptance. He is among many homeless who dispel the stereotype of "street people," activists say.
Nixon tells his story, as everyone under the bridge seems anxious to do. He had evacuated to Las Vegas for Katrina and tried several times to return. "The third time back I got a job, a banquet waiter at the Convention Center. You can make money but you don't have enough money to make the rent but I just keep the faith," he says. "Once you're involved in this situation, it's just an everyday thing. You have to stay focused and work hard and have faith once you're involved in this." As he speaks, he cranes his neck to look at the shelters and the people roaming around.
Mary Holmes, whose face is bruised and swollen from a brutal beating she received from two men who mugged her a week ago, still awaits word from Unity on housing. She slowly limps over to a group of homeless men who received housing through Unity during the clearing out of Duncan Plaza. They have set up a permanently manned encampment until "those of us still left behind have homes," says, Leroy Shephard Myles Jr., the group's leader. Holmes, who lived in an apartment in Algiers before the storm, wants to check her status on the list the group maintains for Unity. They stay in a small compound of tents made from blue FEMA roof tarps. "We have homes through Unity," Myles said. "We're here to see that the rest of us get homes. We gave Unity 223 names last week."
Normally, the group has a 14-foot, muddied, bright yellow plastic banner with bold black letters proclaiming "Homeless Pride" spread across its "office" at the downriver exit from the elevated portion of Claiborne Avenue. They took down the sign as a safety precaution.
The group's "president," Stephen Wheeler, quickly scans the scene, like a sentry, as he talks. "I took the sign down because something bad went down last night. A guy from Jacksonville was trouble selling dope and I just run him off. He hit one of my fellas, one of my board members, while he was selling dope." It would soon be night, and Wheeler doesn't know if the dealer has friends.
Homeless Pride almost became the first organization of formerly homeless people to become an incorporated nonprofit organization. Wheeler pauses mid-sentence to scream to a young, very drunk member of the group, incapable of lighting a cigarette and sucking from a Taaka bottle at 2 p.m. "I told you to go home!"
Months earlier, then-Councilman at-Large Oliver Thomas worked with Wheeler to help the group incorporate as a non-profit. The day Wheeler and an attorney were driving to Baton Rouge to file the paperwork was the same day news broke that Thomas, the man who could have been mayor of New Orleans, accepted bribes from Marc Morial crony Stan Barre and pleaded guilty before a federal judge. Wheeler walks a newcomer to his tent and says, "I'll have Gilbert checking on you tonight."
As the evening temperature drops, three NOPD cruisers come to a quick stop at the traffic light at Claiborne and Canal and turn on their emergency lights. Each officer holds out a warm plate of food in a foam container. The first three people up score the free food. When the light turns green, the officers turn off their lights and speed off.
Not 10 minutes later, a fourth cruiser pulls up, the female officer saying over the bullhorn at a blaring volume: "ANYONE WAVING A SIGN WILL GO TO JAIL TONIGHT" a warning to anyone holding a cardboard sign amid traffic asking for food or money. Those who disobey will spend the night or longer in Orleans Parish Prison.
John Soli, a large man with a grey beard, takes a few bucks from a stranger and says he just isn't that bad off. Under the bridge for several months now, he wound up here by accident after hitchhiking from a funeral in Pensacola back to Houston. He says with a chuckle that he has been "living under a bridge there, believe it or not, for eight years."
'The guy who picked me up wasn't going to Houston but New Orleans, so I said I'd go to Houston by way of New Orleans. He took me to dinner, gave me $20 bucks and dropped me off," he says, looking around the underpass. "I'm a master carpenter by trade. I got a pint of gin and smoked a couple of joints and walked down here, and as soon as I came people stopped and fed people. I got a sandwich, and then someone gave me a shrimp po-boy, and I said, "Damn, they feed pretty good here."'
And so he stayed.
Soli says Unity has him on a high-priority list for housing because of his disability. "I'm schizophrenic," he notes nonchalantly. Although he has health insurance, he doesn't take the anti-psychotic meds because of the side effects. "I took them for 26 years," he says, rattling off his various chemical stews. "I work sometimes, and I get a $600 month disability check."
A master carpenter, he can earn $100 to $150 a day getting hired as a day laborer outside the Lowes Home Improvement on Elysian Fields Avenue.
No one thinks of going to a shelter, even when the city implements its emergency freeze plan.
Those who go risk losing what most people would regard as nothing a tattered tent, bags, blankets, some clothes, canned food, explains Sara Brown, who is spending her second homeless year in a tent. When you're this down, "nothing" seems like gold. "This is all I got," she says.
As the torrential rains intensify, Carnival parades scheduled for that Friday night are cancelled. Many among the homeless moan, knowing the cancellations mean there's no money to be made sweeping up behind the parades. The able-bodied can score $40 after an NBA Hornets game by sweeping up the Arena. In fact, according to Unity officials, a large number of those living under the bridge have jobs.
What keeps them among the ranks of the city's homeless is the lack of affordable housing, health care, and even food. While Unity does its best to provide housing, the kindness of strangers feeds most of those living under the bridge. A modern pickup truck pulls up. Out come eight boxes of satsumas. Though the tasty citrus are browned, one woman grabs an armful and says, "They're still good on the inside now."
A far larger feeding operation is under way in the cold wind on the upriver side of Canal Street. The meal is hastily but successfully put together by Kurt Hery, who organized the food line. A principal of Kajun Kettle Foods Inc., a large local caterer, donated "thousands of dollars" of prepared food.
Volunteer helper Deane Allen worked hard loading hot pasta and grilled chicken breasts that steamed from the plates. They had fed 200 by early afternoon. Despite the bleakness of the scene, the volunteers and Kettle Foods employees are at ease.
'I'm just a volunteer with Hery," Allen says. "We're old friends. I know him, it's a good cause, and he didn't have enough help. The people have been grateful, loving, kind, ready to have a nice hot meal in this very, very cold."
A volunteer for shelters, food programs for the poor and an animal rescuer, Allen has found that many being fed are totally withdrawn, while others are animated, eager for someone to hear their stories. She looks around the underpass. "They thought there were opportunities." She shrugs, turns, and grabs another plate to load. "I think we all just have to sit in this boat and row together, and if we don't row, we're going to sink."
Unity of Greater New Orleans Executive Director Martha Kegel says field workers are taking censuses at what the group euphemistically calls the "Claiborne Corridor," but the organization doesn't have the resources to replicate its work at Duncan Plaza. There, Unity helped feed and shelter hundreds of homeless. After more than a year of being left alone some would say ignored by City Hall that encampment was shut down to make way for the demolition of two public buildings. Now, Unity needs money to continue its mission.
'I was so moved with Duncan Plaza and the people at Claiborne," Kegel says. "They look out for each other and sacrifice for each other. I've had outreach workers trying to take somebody in who really wanted the housing, but they would point someone out who was particularly disabled and tell them, "He needs it more than I do."'
'There's this understanding among them of who is the most vulnerable," says Mike Miller, Unity's director of supportive housing placement. Miller tracks the people who perform "heartbreaking" housing triage work that determines who gets out from under the bridge. "It touches your heart when you see someone who has been homeless for two years, and its 40 degrees and pouring rain and I have an open room, and he says, "No, take that guy of first."'
Miller has an official list of 223 registered homeless people who qualify for housing assistance through Unity. He picked up a list with even more names from Wheeler, of Homeless Pride.
Darkness comes early because of the clouds. Temperatures dip into the 30s. Cohen comes up with a smile and shows off his home: a mattress with foot-tall layers of blankets. Someone breaks out a rare commodity a huge bag of charcoal and two dozen hotdogs and buns. A crowd gathers, and the food is eaten in minutes.
Later, few remain outside but most are still awake, listening to a loud, surrealistic cacophony of blaring sirens, the roars of giant 18-wheelers and the off-rhythm, staccato "brr-rump-rump" of an endless stream of car tires striking the bridge's joints at 60 miles an hour.
Despite the clatter above, those who have lived under the bridge for months learn to tune it out, like white noise that lulls them to sleep. On the worst nights, those without any shelter stay up huddled around charcoal pits.
A new sound is added to the song of the homeless this evening: the pouring rain comes down like waterfalls at the seams of major bridge columns. Lightning strikes and thunder add to the din.
Here, under the bridge, the newcomer's tent is a cocoon, a womb of privacy amid life on the street. Everything owned has a place inside. Scraps of food saved from handouts during the day are unwrapped and devoured as a main meal. The howling wind shakes the tent's sides, and even though the tent's thin membrane blocks the cold gusts, it takes layer upon layer of clothing, blankets and cheap sleeping bags to stay warm.
The city hasn't cleaned a pair of portable toilets for two days. Mounds of feces rise out of the pit, and urine seeps across the pavement onto Iberville Street. Piercing the lonely song of the homeless are the footsteps and curses of people headed to relieve themselves anyway.
And then, at 3 a.m., there's Chase Chamberlain, coming "round to check. "You cool?" Later still, as promised by Wheeler, Gilbert comes over and shares a smoke. "It will be wet in the morning, but warming up."