HOMELESS IN NEW ORLEANS
In New Orleans, a city that has seen more than its share of destruction, devastation, and upheaval in the last nine years, “being homeless” is decidedly different than in other major cities in the US. After Katrina and Rita hit New Orleans, many residents living in the parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard, became “homeless” (“storm displaced homeless”) due to the destruction of houses and rental properties. Katrina displaced over a million people from the gulf coast across the United States. The number of “storm displaced homeless” dropped as people were able to fix their homes (as money from the “Road Home program” and insurance companies became available) and reestablish their lives. It is estimated that the number of “chronically homeless” people living in New Orleans prior to Katrina was 6,000. That number doubled between August 29, 2005 and mid-2007. At that time, with a post-Katrina population of 300,000 people, one in twenty five (1 in 25) people were homeless, (a number three times that of any US city.) A “chronically homeless” individual is defined by US Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) as someone who has experienced homelessness for a year or longer, or who has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years and has a disability.
Some of the first businesses to re-open in New Orleans after Katrina were restaurants, bars, and hotels (“hospitality industry”) and the demand for minimum wage workers became great. Many workers that took these jobs found it difficult to find a place to live in New Orleans, since rentals were extremely scarce after Katrina. Some got FEMA trailer’s that they could use on their land, until their houses were fixed, though life was not easy, living in FEMA trailers. In fact, it was later determined that the FEMA trailers had significant issues with formaldehyde, causing multiple health issues for people living in the trailers. A class action lawsuit resulted in a $42.6 million settlement in 2012.
In 2007, a large group of homeless residents moved to Duncan Plaza (across the street from New Orleans City Hall) to draw attention to the difficulties that people with low incomes and the homeless in New Orleans faced daily. Since Katrina and Rita destroyed much of New Orleans’s affordable housing, housing that previously might have been available to people with low incomes, was not. Further, rents that might have been affordable in “pre-Katrina” New Orleans had often doubled and tripled, leaving the working poor without alternatives. Additionally, the City of New Orleans seemed disinclined to help the “working poor” in New Orleans, even though the city badly needed the income and revenues that the hospitality industry, and its workers could bring. In fact, Mayor Ray Nagin suggested that a way to reduce the City of New Orleans post-Katrina homeless population, was to give them one-way bus tickets out of town. Nagin, of course, later recanted his comments, insisting that it was simply an “off the cuff joke” (see New York Times article dated May 28, 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/28/us/28tent.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&) but the day-to-day reality was that Mayor Nagin and the City of New Orleans, never appeared to have a plan to deal with the homeless, much less implementation, if such a plan even existed. Mayor Nagin believed that the homeless in New Orleans after Katrina were alcoholic, drug abusing, transients who refused shelter; and that belief was pervasive throughout the eight years of his tenure as mayor of New Orleans. In actuality, a survey by local advocacy groups in 2008, showed that 86% of the homeless on the streets of New Orleans, were from New Orleans, 60% were homeless due to Katrina, and 30% had received some form of rental assistance from FEMA since Katrina.
Sadly, as time passed (and administrations changed,) the homeless of New Orleans have received mediocre treatment at best, from the City of New Orleans. Life on the streets of New Orleans is decidedly unsafe for the homeless and there have been numerous attacks on the homeless, including robbery, beatings, battery, rape, and murder. After the Duncan Plaza encampment was forced to move in January 2008, similar sites continued to surface in New Orleans which was not surprising. By forcing people to move from a camp site, the City of New Orleans began a dangerous game of “cat and mouse” that ignored the real issue that there was simply not enough affordable rental housing available. From 2008 to present, homeless camps continue to appear in various locations in New Orleans, often underneath overpasses including under the I-10 overpass on N. Claiborne Avenue, near Canal Street, and beneath Pontchartrain Expressway, near Calliope and Baronne Street. By my count, after reviewing numerous newspaper stories from 2008 to present, there have been at least fifteen (15) times that the City of New Orleans have forced these homeless sites to move. In October 2011, the Occupy movement came to New Orleans to express their displeasure with the disparate wealth distribution. They began their stay by peacefully marching through New Orleans, and then took up residence in Duncan Plaza in New Orleans. Their stay in Duncan Plaza was relatively calm and without incident during the months of October and November 2011, though a homeless man was found dead in his tent early November 2011, due to alcohol poisoning. On December 6, 2011, the City of New Orleans evicted the Occupy NOLA protesters from Duncan Plaza via a pre-dawn visit from the NOPD. Twelve hours later, U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey granted the Occupy New Orleans group a temporary restraining order allowing it to move back into the park, directly across from City Hall where it had been for approximately two months. The restraining order was overturned a week later, and Duncan Plaza was once again cleared.
In fairness to the City of New Orleans, there have been numerous initiatives that the City of New Orleans has introduced and touted as “cures” for the homeless issues in New Orleans. On July 4, 2014, Mayor Landrieu announced a goal to end homelessness among veterans in New Orleans by end of 2014. In September 2013 Mayor Landrieu announced the successful placement of 244 chronically homeless and vulnerable homeless individuals in 100 days as part of the 200 Homes in 100 Days Campaign. In fact there appears to be at least one initiative per year that claims to help the homeless, but what these plans fail to address over and over, is the dire need for affordable housing, so that people in vulnerable financial situations do not end up having to live on the streets of New Orleans.
On August 12, 2014, the NOPD, the City of New Orleans, and the New Orleans Department of Health, began yet another campaign of forcing the current homeless camp under Pontchartrain Expressway to move (by 8/14/14.) The City of New Orleans used the terms public health hazard as it’s reason for forcing the move, but there was a rumor that the real reason for this particular campaign was that the Saints first exhibition game at home was on 8/15/14, and the city didn’t want people to see the eyesore that the homeless camp represented. Whatever the reason, the homeless were moved out by the end of the day on 8/14/14, and the city’s health director said the area was closed due to trash and filth that attracted rats which the city couldn’t clean and put out rat poison, with homeless living there. On Saturday, August 16th, I was in the area around Calliope and Baronne, so I went to see what had changed. There were numerous signs stating that the area had been declared a health hazard by the New Orleans Department of Health; further the signs said that anyone who parked in that area would be towed. There were also numerous barricades everywhere. But as I drove by, I saw just as many homeless as before; they had simply moved a couple blocks further towards Tchoupitoulas. I took photos and talked to a few of the people who said they were “resigned” to what had happened; they thought it made no sense, but felt they had no say in how things go in New Orleans. I went back again Wednesday August 20th, to see if things were different; it was 90 degrees and 90% humidity at 4:30 that day, so I brought bananas, water, and chips. As I handed the water out, I asked how things had changed. Most people simply smiled at me and said thank you for the water, but when I asked if the NOPD were bothering them, I finally got a response from a man who told me “No ma’am, as long as we stay on our spot, they are ok.” When I asked what he meant by spot, he pointed to the sidewalk outside of the areas that were barricaded. Apparently, as long as they stay on the sidewalk and don’t try to move inside the barricades, they have a “right” to be there, and the NOPD will leave them alone. I shook my head and told him I was sorry. But I was truly appalled that on a day that was unbearably hot, even in the shade, that the City of New Orleans was forcing the homeless to stand or sit in the sun, rather than allowing them to move to the shadier area inside the barricades. I know that there are no easy answers, but it seems to me that the City of New Orleans badly needs to re-examine its plans for dealing with the homeless to try to figure out a way to help its most vulnerable residents.