Pin It

'Walking While Homeless' 

Homeless people are filing complaints with the mayor, the police chief, the FBI and the Office of Municipal Investigation, asserting that their very existence is now a crime in this city.

In the heart of the French Quarter, the 59-year-old homeless man they call Doc is walking tiny steps from side to side as he sweeps every inch of Jackson Square -- like he does every morning, if he's not in jail.

If the woman with the big gray dog jogs by, he'll run along with them through the Square. He does that every morning too -- if he's not in jail.

Down on Camp Street, Clarence Adams was arriving at work that morning -- Wednesday morning -- when he first saw the bumper sticker. There, placed prominently on the trash can right in front of the Ozanam Inn, a white sticker stated with simple black letters: "Jesus said 'feed the poor.' But He didn't say where. Move the Ozanam."

Adams, the assistant administrator at the Ozanam, a local homeless shelter, took a walk around and found others on signs near the intersection of Camp and Julia streets. "Such hatred," he says. It's that mindset, he says, that's fueling the current campaign against the homeless of this city.

A few weeks ago, a few homeless men filed complaints with the FBI, alleging civil-rights violations by the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). Then, on Thursday morning, a few of those advocates and several homeless people lodged complaints -- with the Office of Municipal Investigation (OMI), the mayor, and the police chief -- against NOPD as a whole and against individual officers including Captain Louis Dabdoub, who from his position as commander of the Eighth District has overseen the much-publicized cleanup of the French Quarter.

Also on Thursday, a series of people gave statements to the press from the sidewalk in front of OMI's offices on Poydras Avenue. "We're here protesting a violation of human rights," said Mike Howells, a representative of the group Bring Back the Benches, which has been critical of several aspects of the recent cleanup, particularly the removal of the benches from Jackson Square.

"Since June 1st, there's been almost an avalanche of human-rights violations in New Orleans," Howells asserted. Homeless men and women nodded as they waited for their turn to speak, waving signs bearing slogans such as "Zero tolerance means that those with zero will not be tolerated."

Advocates for the homeless also spoke briefly. Sister Vera Butler, who runs a one-person homeless outreach program for St. Joseph Church on Tulane Avenue, stepped up and said, "I work with the homeless everyday." The homeless come to St. Joseph for lunch and for referrals to services. For Butler, the current arrest practices mean that she will only be able to help people to a certain point before they'll be gone for a 30-day stay in jail. "Then," she says, "everything we've done is lost."

When the homeless people step forward, they tell of police harassment and arrest. Individual stories vary, but certain details are consistent. Nearly every arrest occurred within the Central Business District, Warehouse District or the French Quarter. And most complainants at Thursday's press conference were booked under two charges. "Obstructing the sidewalk, public drunk. All the time -- no matter what they did," says Judson Mitchell, who for the past five years has defended the homeless on criminal charges through the Loyola University law clinic's homeless advocacy program.

NOPD statistics obtained by Gambit Weekly show 307 charges for obstructing public passage in June 2002, more than triple the count for June 2001. Public-drunkenness charges for the summer -- June, July and August -- were up by more than a thousand when compared to the same months in 2001.

Mitchell says that most of those increases were on the backs of homeless people -- and unfairly so. "Most [homeless] people I've seen for public-drunk charges were not drinking and the circumstances are such that it looks like they couldn't have been drinking," says Mitchell. He cites a case where his client had left the New Orleans Mission at 6 a.m., only to be arrested for public drunkenness at 6:30 a.m.

Clarence Adams has a similar tale about someone in the Ozanam's program who signed out to go to the corner store. According to the Ozanam's rules, people must return within 30 minutes. This man was confronted by a cop just a few minutes later, allegedly for sitting on the ground sleeping. That didn't make any sense to Adams. "I thought, wait. He's going to take his half-hour and go around the corner and go to sleep?"

Fifty years ago, homeless people were routinely charged with vagrancy. But in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated vagrancy laws because they were constitutionally vague and granted police too much discretion. For many years, the city of New Orleans prohibited "unauthorized public habitation." Homeless people were typically charged with public habitation for actions such as sleeping in public. In 1986, the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corp. (NOLAC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged the ordinance and secured a federal judgment in their favor. The law was ruled unconstitutional.

Still, the public-habitation ordinance stayed alive, in practice, well into the year 2000, when NOPD officers made 657 bookings under that charge. After pressure from homeless advocates, the ordinance was officially taken off the city books in September 2001 and the arrests disappeared. During this summer's cleanup, however, amid all the arrest paperwork, five people once again received the charge.

Many of the arrests once made under "public habitation" are now being booked as "obstruction of public passage," says Martha Kegel, who represents homeless people in civil cases through her position as a staff attorney at NOLAC. To her, it seems clear that both charges -- obstructing a public passage and public-drunkenness -- are being used as catch-alls. Just like the old vagrancy laws. "At least when they openly outlawed homelessness, they were being honest," says Kegel. "In a way, they've now created a new crime -- walking while homeless."

Kegel says that the frequency and scope of the arrests have reached a truly alarming point. "They're even arresting working people who are waiting for their paychecks," she says, exasperated.

Wednesday is always payday at Mari-Clean, a 24-hour temporary employment agency that specializes in cleaning ships docked in the Port of New Orleans. But on one Wednesday earlier this month, it was only 8:30 a.m., early enough that the woman who hands out the paychecks hadn't arrived yet. And so, when the first squad car drove up, four men and one woman were standing outside on the sidewalk, waiting.

The Mari-Clean door was open -- a worker says he had one foot inside and one out. He was looking out the door toward the parking lot, he says, because he'd heard that the woman with the checks had pulled into the lot.

Carnell Satcher and Joann Monroe had just walked out that door, but they weren't waiting on any checks. Satcher used to work for Mari-Clean, he says, but that was a few years ago. On Wednesday, Sept. 4, they were merely making a pit stop -- Monroe needed to use the bathroom.

When the police car drove up, the man standing in the doorway tried to turn around and go back into the building, according to his affidavit. The police officer told him to come outside, then lined all six men and two women up against the wall. Four or five squad cars and two NOPD scooters showed up. The officer told the group that they were being charged with obstructing a public passage.

"For the last two years, I've been put in jail about eight times -- for nothing," says Satcher. The charges often aren't clear at first, he says. "Sometimes they just arrest me and say, 'We'll think of something.'"

Carnell Satcher joined the other homeless people at last Thursday's press conference. He talked to reporters about his experience in front of Mari-Clean and his is now one of more than a dozen affidavits taken by attorneys Martha Kegel and Judson Mitchell and Loyola law student Nancy Sutton. "We're collecting affidavits for future use -- litigation or whatever action is appropriate," says Mitchell.

The affidavits chronicle the little everyday details of homeless life in New Orleans. The beers together, the occasional glass of whiskey on ice, the hot weather. The reality that most homeless men must be on the streets starting each day at 6 or 7 a.m., because that's when they're required to leave local shelters. Their feelings about a municipal court judge notorious for handing down 30-day sentences when other judges might let them out on time served if they plead guilty. (If they plead not guilty, they serve another 21 days in jail awaiting trial.) All throughout the stories is a careful accounting of how repeated arrests and jail time has, for each person, led to lost jobs and apartments, missed funerals and appointments.

The affidavits also describe police confrontations from the point of view of the homeless. Frequent ID checks seem to be a fact of life, if the affidavits are accurate. Homeless men say it's not unusual for cops to tell them things like "I'm sick of seeing you," or "You're banned from the French Quarter for life."

Then there are the arrests, they say. Charges for trespassing in public areas. The group of five men booked for public drunkenness together when they hadn't had anything to drink and had only a few bucks between them, not enough to buy any alcohol. And the arrest at 3 a.m. for standing in front of the locked and chained gates into Jackson Square's park. The charge? Obstructing public passage.

Gerard Hill was one of the men arrested in front of the park gates. At Thursday's press conference, he told the assembled what he hears about the French Quarter cleanup. "They're talking about getting all the trash off the street. Meaning me, too," he said.

NOPD Captain Louis Dabdoub says that his officers are under strict instructions not to arrest the homeless just for being homeless. All of this uproar -- the press conferences, the complaints -- is part of an age-old strategy, he says. "Defense attorneys get together with their clients and say, 'The way you combat this is you complain. If you complain enough, police usually say that it ain't worth it.'"

But, Dabdoub says, a police officer has nothing to gain by needlessly picking up homeless people. "It's work for him," he says. Instead, he suggests, think of the complaints as a sign of progress. "Any time there's change, people are going to buck, moan and groan and complain because it isn't the way it used to be. They say, 'We've been doing it for 12 years. Why is it different now?' The answer is, 'This should have been dealt with 12 years ago and it wasn't.' Now it is. It's a new-line-in-the-sand type of situation."

Homelessness is a big problem in the Quarter, he says, and the city needs to start paying attention. "Because if homeless people have no respect for themselves and nobody cares about them, why would they care whether they pee on your wall?

"We're not arresting or confronting the wrong people," says Dabdoub. "If we were, crime numbers wouldn't change." He cites statistics for the Eighth District that show about 15 reported crimes per day when he took over earlier this summer. Last Tuesday, there were only two crimes reported in the entire district.

This decline in crime vividly illustrates one point, he says. "It's not little green Martians who come out of the sky at night and commit crime. It's people who are here."

Dabdoub has taken courses at Loyola University from criminologist-sociologist Dee Wood Harper, and so he asked his former professor to help develop a training program to deal with the homeless. On Monday, the Police Foundation submitted just such a proposal to a funding source. They should know an answer in a month or so.

If approved, the training would focus on two things, says Harper. First, giving police a better understanding of the homeless situation. And second, intensive schooling on the NOPD policy for the homeless.

The NOPD first began writing a homeless policy last June, after homeless advocates sat down with then-Police Chief Richard Pennington and other district commanders. The document, which became effective on March 17 of this year, states: "It is the policy of the New Orleans Police Department not to pursue charges against individuals based solely on their economic or mental status/capacity. Those individuals commonly referred to as 'homeless' enjoy all rights and privileges commonly exercised and enjoyed by individuals occupying higher socioeconomic positions, or of greater mental capacity."

It then goes on to list a number of organizations that help homeless people. Project Reach is at the top of that list, as the contact for transportation of the homeless. But they have yet to receive a phone call from NOPD, says Jeffrey Fairley, project coordinator for Project Reach. "If they implemented the policy, I'm not sure how much implementation has happened," says Fairley. "Especially because we are supposed to be the point person and they haven't called us yet."

Dabdoub promises that things will move forward. "There is so much room for improvement it's not even funny," he says. "I promise you, two years from now, we will still be improving."

Harper, approaching the problem from a criminologist's standpoint, says that the NOPD desperately needs to begin tracking homeless arrests. This is essential, he says, since the success of the proposed training program depends on a reduction in homeless arrests.

One of Harper's main areas of expertise is crime in tourist cities. "Homelessness is not a major factor in that, " he says. In a soon-to-be-published paper about tourists as crime victims, Harper concludes that "perhaps as many as a fourth of tourists that are victimized sort of bring it on themselves." Basically, they're interested in prostitutes, drugs and "other action" that might not interest them if they were at home, he says. Then, when they get knocked over the head, he says, they tell the police how it all happened.

"I don't have a sense that the homeless have any role in that," he says. "If anything, they stand a better chance of becoming victims than almost anybody. Because they're on the street."

Once the Jackson Square band arrives, Doc -- whose real name is Philip Turner -- snaps into action. He passes the broom through his legs. He plays it like a guitar. He makes a few quick strokes to sweep up a cigarette butt, then gets down on one knee in front of an onlooker, puts his hat on his heart and blows a kiss. He gets up and dances, tossing the broom back and forth from hand to hand, and shooting it like a rifle. Then he takes a seat, clapping for the band.

His hair is cut into stripes a few inches apart. It's distinctive, he says. "There ain't nobody in this city who wears their hair like this except the Doctor of Love, the Godfather of Jackson Square."

Recently, someone gave Turner a stethoscope because he sometimes proclaims that he also is a medical doctor -- he studied bones, he says, and is sometimes called upon to practice his craft here on the Square.

Turner spent much of the last year or so in jail. His last arrest was in July, in full view of the band and its spectators, who say that all he was doing was sitting on the ground in front of the Cabildo eating crawfish. "We'd gotten 30 pounds of crawfish," he says. "I wasn't doing anything except eat."

"I've slept out here on these streets for 10-and-a-half years," he says. "Where else am I going to go? I'm the Doctor of Love, the Godfather of the Square. The only time I'm homeless," he says, "is when they put me in jail."

click to enlarge DONN YOUNG


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Pin It
Submit an event Jump to date

Latest in News

More by Katy Reckdahl

  • Razing a Community

    Sixty-five years ago, New Orleans gave grand tours of its first public housing projects. Today, philosophies about public housing have changed, but Lafitte residents say that their project stood out as a stable, closely knit community -- one worth saving
    • Oct 31, 2006
  • Like a Ton of Bricks

    Lafitte public housing residents were hit hard by the news that HUD plans to demolish their home, which they called "the best project in town." Now an unlikely coalition of architects, housing experts, agitators and former residents is trying to save the
    • Oct 24, 2006
  • Do You Know What It Means to Myth New Orleans?

    One of the Crescent City's biggest challenges is overcoming inaccurate reports and stereotypes that formed in the immediate wake of Katrina.
    • Aug 22, 2006
  • More »

© 2018 Gambit
Powered by Foundation