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Tents Time for the Homeless? 

An NOPD captain has proposed a 'tent city' for New Orleans' chronically homeless population. The city's homeless do need something, say local advocates, but not this.

The man known only as Doc raised an arm in greeting. "I'm just waiting for them to pick it up a little," he said, gesturing at the Jackson Square musicians.

Doc, a homeless man, had for years spent his mornings sweeping the square down to the last cigarette butt. Afternoons, he would pick up that broom and dance with it.

The very next day, the band was back in the same spot and swinging hard -- but Doc was nowhere to be seen. He'd been arrested while sitting near the Cabildo, say the musicians. They don't know why he was taken away, but they presume that he's being held at Orleans Parish Prison.

The square's regulars who danced and socialized behind the band are also gone, probably to the same destination, say the musicians. Even the square's metal benches were removed earlier this summer, allegedly to be made "homeless-proof" -- with armrests in the middle that prohibit anyone from lying down and sleeping.

That was the original idea, says a spokesperson for Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson. But Clarkson now has "no intention of putting those benches back," because they were always being used by vagrants and weren't available for residents anyway.

Across the square, by Cafe du Monde, most of the adolescent tap dancers -- with the smashed-beer-can taps on their tennis shoes and their refrains of "Hey mister, how about a tip?" -- are gone, too. A good number of them have appeared in Orleans Parish Juvenile Court on charges of aggressive panhandling.

It's all part of a new strategy coming from the New Orleans Police Department's Eighth District and its captain, Louis Dabdoub, who moved over from the Second District at the beginning of June. Dabdoub has put officers in plain clothes, on horseback, and on the street to watch for pickpockets, shoplifters, open containers and kids violating curfew. Officers are under orders to strictly enforce so-called "quality-of-life" crimes such as panhandling, drunkenness and public urination.

The strategy has even displaced Bob, the perennially homeless guy who had long been a fixture in front of Eighth headquarters on Royal Street. Area shop-owners say that, at one point, officers from the Eighth had gone so far as to chip in to buy Bob his electric wheelchair, which he plugs in at the post office and other places. Dabdoub doesn't know anything about that, but says that Bob has now been told to "be homeless somewhere else" after an incident where Bob was blocking the sidewalk with his wheelchair, screaming "I need money."

The new tack in policing is a success, proclaims one resident who'd rather not be identified. "It's a world of difference and I mean for the better," she says, noting that for the kind of money she pays to live near the square, she shouldn't have to put up with "a constant parade of transients, beggars, bums, delinquents and drunks."

Advocates for the homeless are less pleased with the "clean-up" of the Quarter, the levee and its environs. Many people, they say, are being picked up simply for being homeless.

Then, in mid-June, shelter workers and homeless advocates began to hear about another initiative coming from the Eighth District. They refer to it as "the tent city."

Dabdoub, sitting in his freshly painted office in the Eighth District, says that his concept is less tent city, more "homeless sanctuary."

But he doesn't care what it's called. What it will do, he says, is provide emergency beds for the homeless, which everyone agrees are sorely needed. At first, the shelter would consist of tents erected by Criminal Sheriff Charles Foti, but it would be followed -- in one to three years, Dabdoub guesses -- by a real shelter.

Dabdoub is eager to respond to some of the concerns he's heard. "First of all, if I was out to abuse the homeless, I'd just put them in jail," he says. Furthermore, he's proposing a viable alternative to jail, not a secondary jail. "Foti's only role here is to construct this," he stresses. Lastly, he says, he would prefer to see a nonprofit running the operation.

He says that his officers are respecting the rights of the homeless, but warns that if anyone -- with or without a home -- is violating the law in the Eighth District, his officers won't hesitate to make an arrest. The stats indicate that he's not bluffing. During Dabdoub's first five weeks, his district racked up more than 3,100 arrests.

Foti currently books 70,000 people through Orleans Parish Prison during one year; if each of the city's eight districts were arresting at the same rate as the Eighth has been, Foti's staff would be booking nearly a quarter-million people annually.

Dabdoub notes that his arrest rate is already slowing. His calls-for-service are also down -- now 600 fewer a week. So is the crime rate -- a 73 percent reduction in the District since he took over. "If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves," he says triumphantly.

No one can dispute that the streets of the Quarter have changed since Dabdoub's first days in office. Take, for instance, his first Friday on the job. That afternoon in Jackson Square, an ambulance and a circle of police cars had screamed into the square right by the longstanding Lucky Dog vendor. There had been an argument, and a longtime French Quarter homeless resident -- rail-thin, with one big gray dreadlock -- had pulled out a corkscrew and stabbed a fortune teller in the hand. The fortune teller was treated for his wound; the homeless man was arrested.

That night, Dabdoub "played tourist" with his wife in the Quarter to observe the workings of his district from a citizen perspective. "In every block, someone was violating the law," he says. "My wife and I literally had to step around someone -- a falling-down drunk -- who was urinating. People were constantly browbeating me for money."

Their less-than-perfect evening was topped off by the murder of a homeless woman known as "Miss Doris," who was shot and killed in the square by her boyfriend.

The tent-city idea came soon afterward, after a discussion with Loyola Professor Dee Wood Harper, who has for years studied crime in urban areas, especially in tourist cities. Dabdoub put together a team of advisors who have helped move the plan forward: Harper, Foti, Jackie Clarkson, Col. Terry Ebbert from the Police Foundation, Biaggio DiGiovanni and Carl Howat from the homeless shelter Ozanam Inn, Dr. Kevin Jordan from Touro Infirmary (for medical advice), Dr. Jim Arey from NOPD's Mobile Crisis Unit (for mental-health needs), and the Rev. Charles Southall from the 500-church Louisiana Missionary Baptist State Convention (providing food).

Those on the team say that Dabdoub does listen. What he will not do, Dabdoub says, is allow this project to be mired in an endless committee process.

He walks to one of the cardboard boxes sitting on his office floor and pulls out a wooden plaque with two brass inscriptions. Both are Teddy Roosevelt quotes. Dabdoub points at the portion of one that says, "It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena."

This plaque, along with photos of his wife and daughters, is the only thing he has ever hung on his office walls, he says.

Kerry Thompson is homeless, but he doesn't think that the events of June 7 have anything to do with him.

"That day is no reflection on other homeless people," he says, noting that he knew Miss Doris and found her "always friendly." She made extra money, he says, by helping tarot-card readers set up their tables. The fortune-teller/homeless relationship is a longstanding one, says Thompson. Some of the square's "partying homeless" rely upon it to buy their beer.

Thompson is never part of that group. He likes his beer -- bottles of Abita Purple Haze if his money is right, cans of Busch if it isn't -- but he likes to drink it alone. If he can, he likes to keep to himself almost all the time.

This afternoon, Thompson, along with a Busch tall-boy in a paper bag, is catching a cool breeze from the river in one of the levee's new homeless-proof benches.

Thompson is clean and neat, thanks partly to regular visits to the weekday shower-and-laundry facilities at the Immaculate Conception church on Baronne Street. He has blue line-art tattoos up both arms, almost all birds. There's a bird holding the scale of justice, a dove gripping an olive branch, an eagle head, a full eagle, and an eagle with wings that look like penguin flippers -- it was supposed to be flying, he says.

The only hint that Thompson is homeless is a big pastel-blue-and-yellow bag that sits on the ground next to him. He found it at a thrift store, he says, and was thrilled by its many pockets.

"Later on," he says, "a chick told me, 'That is a mother-who-just-had-a-child bag.'" The news didn't dampen his enthusiasm about his new find, which holds necessities like a change of clothes, soap and a can of anti-perspirant.

A clear side pocket holds his pill bottles. "I take three different prescriptions," he says. "BuSpar, anti-anxiety. Seroquel, anti-psychotic. And Norpramin, anti-depressant." He says he has "bad nerves" -- bad enough that in 1993 the federal government officially declared him disabled and began sending him Social Security Income (SSI) and Social Security checks on the first and third days of each month.

His prescriptions cost him three dollars a month through Medicaid, he says, and he is careful about saving that money. "If I go without my medication, I feel like the life is leaving me," he says. "I get chest pains, insomnia, trembles, sweats."

Like most homeless people, Thompson is a local. According to a recent survey conducted by Unity for the Homeless, 76 percent of the homeless people in Jefferson and Orleans parishes are from Louisiana; 62 percent are from the greater New Orleans area. Thompson grew up in New Orleans and was kicked out of his family home when he was 18, after his mom got a new boyfriend. He's been homeless on and off since 1974, he says, depending on evictions, job status, and personal crises. Over the years, he's worked various jobs including one -- a courier position in the CBD -- that he held for about three years. But mostly, jobs are too stressful.

Thompson says that he's careful not to get too drunk and that he personally hasn't had many problems with the police. But the current climate has him concerned. "Lately, seems like police have increased hatefulness toward us," Thompson says, grimacing. "Sometimes I wonder if they're being told, 'It's us against the homeless.'"

He continues: "For a while, when the city abolished open-container [enforcement], I heard police say, 'I can't get you for open container, but I can for public drunk." Public-drunk charges can be easily abused, he notes, because they depend on an officer's observations, not a breath or blood test.

Thompson is right on the mark, says Clarence Adams, assistant administrator at the Ozanam Inn. Adams explains that, up until late last year, police were arresting hundreds of homeless each year for "unauthorized public habitation," even though that ordinance had been declared unconstitutional in 1986 by the local U.S. District Court after a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corp. (NOLAC).

The ordinance was taken off the city books in September, says Adams, but the NOPD officers continue to make the bad arrests. "Our clients are claiming now that, if they're sleeping, the police will come and get them and charge them with being drunk in public. So they're going to jail for sleeping in the park anyway." NOPD statistics on this issue were not available at presstime.

Kerry Thompson takes a sip from his beer and says he'd like to clear up a misconception. Most panhandlers, he explains, are not homeless. (National research supports this observation.) "One day last week," says Thompson, "I was by the A&P, and these guys -- rockheads in their thirties -- were panhandling hard. They were even beginning to get on my nerves." They were soon arrested, Thompson says, but it troubles him that the public might confuse those men with people like him.

Thompson says that up until this spring he was living in an efficiency apartment off Magazine Street and Napoleon Avenue, thanks to a program through Volunteers of America that required him to have a job. He says that in May he told the program to cut him off, that the government had declared him disabled and that his nerves couldn't take the stress.

One of his biggest regrets is that he can no longer sponsor three kids -- a boy from Indonesia and two girls, from Mozambique and Lesotho, Africa. He carries photos and letters from them in his bag. Other than that he's happy, he says. "Strange as it may seem, I am. For most people, I guess it must be their worst nightmare to be homeless. I used to be like that," he says, recalling his first homeless night, when he slept in a seat in what was then the Trailways bus station.

"Now I'm a straight-up bum," he says, with no aspirations of success or credit cards or cars or pretty houses. "Those things don't move me anymore." He tries to explain why. "It's like a woman who is used to having lots of men. Then one day, she just stops. A change done come over her, and she doesn't crave the same things anymore."

R. Judson Mitchell defends homeless people on criminal charges through the Loyola University Law Clinic. He was part of the Mayor's Task Force on Homelessness in New Orleans, which issued its report and list of recommendations in February. Mitchell says that he's a little mystified by this so-called tent city.

"We had homeless advocates, people from the Warehouse District, the tourism bureau, the government," says Mitchell. "It was a really wide-ranging group of people. And no one ever suggested a tent city."

To homeless advocates, it is a bit perplexing to see Dabdoub moving forward on this odd idea, with hopes of constructing something this fall. Critics say that he is well-intentioned, but ask why they've seen no concrete plans or budget. The only location they've heard about is rumored to be on Poydras Street, near the Broad Street overpass. More than anything else, they wonder whether a law-enforcement approach is appropriate for this task.

Yet across the country, law-enforcement officers have for years enforced initiatives about homelessness. In 1987, the New York Police Department began picking up homeless people and forcibly entering them into treatment programs as part of a citywide program called Project HELP. The ACLU went to court on behalf of one of the first people committed. She was released by doctors after a judge ruled that she couldn't be medicated against her will.

Advocates say that civil liberties are also being violated whenever homeless people are arrested for sleeping, resting, storing belongings or maintaining personal hygiene. Cities are "criminalizing homelessness," they say.

According to a national report released in January, the criminalization of homelessness is now so pervasive that it demands a federal response. The report, published by the National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, describes laws, police practices and purported civil-liberties violations in 80 communities.

In New Orleans, Martha Kegel says that she knows of far too many homeless people who have been arrested for things like blocking the sidewalk. "In the meantime," she notes wryly, "Galatoire's patrons are clogging the sidewalks, but they're not being arrested." The problem, she says, is that the police are "making no distinction between really causing problems and just existing."

Kegel files civil cases on behalf of the homeless from her office at NOLAC. If any of her clients are arrested, she says, it can trigger a series of events. Many homeless people have jobs, she says, and if they're stuck in jail, they'll almost certainly be fired. Jail time can also interrupt Social Security benefits to the point where some people may have to re-apply, a process that can take years.

Plus, asserts Kegel, many of the homeless are mentally ill, and Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) has historically been inattentive to inmates and their prescription drugs. It should be no surprise, she says, when people who might have been off their meds are released at 12:01 a.m. from OPP, only to run away, act crazy and paranoid, even become violent.

Luckily, says Kegel, the Unity for the Homeless coalition has been so successful in getting people off the street that there are only a couple hundred sleeping there at any given time. Unity coordinates the local response to homelessness and distributes money from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development to more than 60 agencies.

Unity Executive Director Peg Reese says that on any given night in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, there are 2,944 people who are sleeping in a homeless-housing program. The 268 people who remain on the streets are, by and large, the chronically homeless. Most of them are middle-aged and older men between the ages of 40 and 60 years old. Seventy-four percent have substance-abuse problems, mental illness, or both.

From Unity's survey, Reese knows other information about these people: 16 percent had once owned a home; 30 percent have served in the military; 57 percent have a high-school or college degree; none have a monthly income greater than $1,200; 36 percent have no income at all.

"We need to do better by these men," says Reese. "You can't put people in a tent like this. It lacks dignity. And we know there's a better solution." Like, for instance, a permanent shelter, says Reese.

Kegel wonders whether many people will voluntarily use the tent city. Last week, she held a legal clinic at Multi-Service Center for the Homeless on Earhart Boulevard and asked a group of 30 about the idea. Only a few said that they would go there on their own. If the tent city is run by police, she worries, her clients might be brought there anyway.

Those concerns, if realized, could take criminalization to a new level, says Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the D.C.-based National Coalition of the Homeless. When reached by telephone, he had already heard about the proposed New Orleans tent city and says that what's being planned here has never been done before. In other places, campgrounds and tent cities are run by the homeless themselves or by non-profits.

"Never never never have I seen one that was run by the police," says Stoops. "We consider a police-run shelter sort of an oxymoron. It will scare away homeless people and probably be used more as a drunk tank or prison camp than a shelter."

Stoops doesn't think the project has much of a future. "If they do it, I promise you it won't work. It will be shut down."

Kerry Thompson hikes his bag to his shoulder, throws his beer can in the trash, and heads toward Canal Street.

He stops to talk at the corner of Camp and Canal streets, as businessmen in suits pass by. "These guys are going to go home, take off that tie and loosen that collar," he says. He has no interest in that life, especially in "that little button at your neck that you struggle with."

But it's at times like these, he admits, that he has moments of wistfulness about his little apartment, namely his icebox, which he'd like to reach into and pull out a beer.

Instead, he'll spend tonight in one of the downtown shelters. Then, while he's sleeping, one of his social security checks will enter his bank account.

Tomorrow, he'll wake up as usual at 6 a.m., when the shelter workers cut on the lights and say, "Rise and shine." After washing his face, he'll head out the door and walk over to Krystal, where he plans to have a nice breakfast -- grits, bacon, two sunnyside-up eggs.

He's had a little craving for that, he says.

CORRECTION: In last week's "Best Buys & Bargains," we incorrectly reported a summer sale of frames at Latitudes (3701 Magazine St., 895-9880; No such sale is ongoing; rather, the store's August Annex Sale will be held at DK Clay, 1943 Sophie Wright Place. Gambit Weekly regrets the error.

click to enlarge CHERYL GERBER


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