Following last month's clearing of a "tent city" under the Pontchartrain Expressway overpass and the Sept. 4 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 yet another encampment — under the overpass at Camp and Calliope streets.
On Sept. 10, 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 (including intersections, neutral grounds, sidewalks and streets) by specifically defining those obstructions as sofas, tents and other belongings. A few hours later, those same homeless folks were ordered to leave within 72 hours.
In August, a much larger "tent city" under the expressway near the Union Passenger Terminal 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. Others say they have been turned away from shelters because of lack of space, and they say the city has not offered support to those left behind.
The ordinance had the support of the homeless outreach organization Unity of Greater New Orleans, which wrote in a Sept. 3 statement that encampments "jeopardize public health," often become a "cover" for drug dealers and render some people vulnerable to sexual assaults. 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."
Juston Winfield, a homeless man living at the encampment since early this year, said the city and service organizations such as 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. ... 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." City officials also want to link homeless people with the 60 service providers working with the city.
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 promised to review how best to enforce rules and regulations.
Last week, Gray told Gambit, "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 can't make a good decision with the left half of the plan until you've looked at that right half."
Gray also expressed concern 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."