On Friday, the city’s chronic homeless camp under the elevated Pontchartrain Expressway was cleared again — a repeat of the widely publicized operation conducted in August.
“It happens every year, sooner or later,” said John, 57, who was able to grab two plastic grocery bags containing his essentials, though he said he lost other possessions, including a mattress he’d managed to salvage.
At lunchtime Saturday, he and nearly four dozen other homeless people sat on the curb and munched plates of red beans and fried chicken provided by a group of philanthropic young rappers who had gotten a table from the New Orleans Mission and set it up across the street, next to St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.
People are fed like this nearly every weekend, said John, a Gert Town native who has been homeless for about three years, ever since his last immediate family member died.
He has been working with an outreach worker from UNITY of Greater New Orleans, but under the agency’s policy, more seriously ill people are housed first.
“That’s why my number hasn’t come up,” he said. “I’m just not that sick. I’ve been told that I’m a little bipolar, but otherwise I’m all right.”
Like other homeless camps, the Pontchartrain Expressway camp sprouted up for a reason. It’s covered, so it provides protection from the rain. And it’s near the mission, which some feel provides a level of safety for those sleeping there. But once the camp gets too large, fights increase and conditions deteriorate because of waste, stored food and mattresses, which attract rodents.
John has witnessed the cycle three times now. “The rats weren’t too bad this time,” he said. “But if you left food out, they would come.”
And once the rats showed up, it was unpleasant. They were large rats that would often bite during the night, he said.
So John understood why the city issued a public-health advisory on Monday, advising people to clear the area under the expressway from Tchoupitoulas Street to South Claiborne Avenue.
Homeless outreach teams, volunteers and city staffers let people know that the area would be closed on Friday. Posted notices warned that people were not allowed to sleep, camp or park in the area.
Charlotte Parent, director of the city’s Health Department, said the closure was an effort to “reduce the risk of harm and health hazards in the impacted area.”
Over the past week, 43 homeless people who wanted to be referred to a shelter were transported and assessed for housing and health needs. On Friday morning, sanitation teams removed all the mattresses, chairs and other items and then used mechanical street flushers and sweepers to clean the area.
Former camp residents said that sometimes, people who brought food to the residents left trash behind, making conditions worse. So the city has asked anyone who wants to donate food to work with homeless shelters like the mission or through other homeless service providers.
On Saturday, the young men feeding the crowd were conscientiously walking around and picking up the trash.
“This is our first time doing this,” said twins Louis and Enrique Morales, 20, who made red beans and brought 500 pieces of fried chicken with the help of about seven members of the 0017th crew of rappers, named for the 17th Ward, where some of them grew up in Hollygrove.
Joaquien Smith, 21, who raps under the name “Hollygrove Keem,” handed a homeless person some sanitizer from a box that also contained baby wipes, toothpaste and toothbrushes.
“Every day, you got someone begging for something on every corner. Or you see someone lying under that bridge,” he said. “So it felt good to give back.”
Besides the area under the expressway from Tchoupitoulas to South Claiborne, the city said it also has declared these areas off-limits to homeless people because of health hazards: Margaret Place Park at Prytania and Calliope streets; the area under Interstate 10 from Earhart Boulevard to Orleans Avenue; Duncan Plaza on Loyola Avenue in front of City Hall; Lee Circle; the area under the I-10 on/off ramps at the Carrollton Avenue exit; and the public right of way adjacent to the main public library at Loyola and Tulane avenues.
“To ensure the safety and health of all, the area under the Pontchartrain Expressway overpass from Tchoupitoulas to South Claiborne including Margaret Place Park ... has been closed to the public, and individuals will not be allowed to sleep, camp or park there,” a news release from the Mayor’s Office said.
“The city has posted notices that no one is allowed within this area until further notice, and it has placed chained gates to prevent vehicles from entering the area. Any automobiles found parked in this area will be ticketed and towed.”
Police “will closely monitor the area” to prevent people from congregating there again, the release said.
Meanwhile, it said, the city is “finalizing arrangements for managed control of the surface parking lots” under the expressway “so that they may be utilized for vehicle parking.”