As New Orleans makes way for more downtown parking, police and health workers conducted another sweep under the Pontchartrain Expressway in March of homeless people living in makeshift encampments of tents and bedding. Eileen Fleming has this report on where they went, how they’re adapting and what the city is planning.
Daniel Watts is the outreach coordinator for the New Orleans Mission homeless shelter. He and some volunteers head out several days a week throughout the city, handing out water and snacks to the homeless, and letting people know that there are beds available. Many of the 1,700 homeless people in New Orleans are used to sleeping within sight of the Mission, across the street under the Pontchartrain Expressway.
When Watts heard the city was fencing off that area for parking, he concentrated on reaching out to the 100 people or so who gathered under the bridge. About 40 are still there – moving only a few blocks closer to the Union Passenger Terminal. It’s a community in concrete, with some sleeping on cardboard to soften the pavement. There’s no grass under the bridge, and only a few patches along the Calliope Street sidewalks. And the noise is loud.
Even with their old camping spot being fenced off, they don’t take him up on the offer of a bed. It’s complicated.
He says some people just won’t come in. Watts says some of them don’t want to follow the rules,, like no smoking or drinking
Watts says about 250 men and women can be accommodated separately every night at the Mission, but it’s been about half-full.
The fence is up, but there are openings. And some people are living alongside the concrete support pillars. Some have plastic coolers and bags of clothing.
A 29-year-old woman from Houma, who said her name is Michelle, rode up on a bike. She said she had a tent until city workers swept the area clean in mid-March, and all her clothes were thrown away.
The city says it posts notice 72 hours ahead of a sweep. Crews are accompanied by police officers.
City Health Director Charlotte Parent says these sweeps are unpleasant for the homeless and city health worker. But they’re necessary for public health.
Parent says officials didn’t expect the Pontchartrain Expressway sweep to permanently clear the area. She says some homeless people consider their encampments as their community, and they often return.
Sam Joel has been policy adviser to Mayor Mitch Landrieu on homelessness for the past six years. He says the city has a 10-year plan to end homelessness. He says the emphasis is now on supportive housing – not just sweeps.
Meanwhile, the areas where homeless encampments are forming remain fluid. The fences are up under the Pontchartrain Expressway - and the city is taking bids on companies to run it as a parking lot.