Loretta McDougall flipped through the romance novel “A Turn in the Road” on Wednesday while stretched out on a blanket under the Pontchartrain Expressway near Calliope Street and Simon Bolivar Avenue.

The Illinois native had come to New Orleans from the hamlet of Hughes Springs, Texas, with the hope of finding better social services. McDougall, 77, previously worked as a concession stand manager, but chronic arthritis left her unable to hold a job.

She had stayed at the New Orleans Mission for 21 days — the maximum allowed — and after that resorted to sleeping under the expressway while she waited for housing from the homeless outreach organization UNITY.

“I’ve been assured I’m going to be in by the first of the month,” McDougall said. “I’m just going to tough it out until then.”

She wouldn’t be spending the night alone.

The homeless encampment under the expressway, which has been frequented by transients for at least two decades, has grown rapidly over the last few months. According to homeless advocates, nearby residents and those living under the bridge, it’s larger, and in some ways more cohesive, than ever before.

Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY, said 126 people were sleeping at the encampment as of June 18. Scores more drift in during the day. Dozens of tents and couches dot the underpass from St. Charles Avenue all the way to South Broad Street. Many who live there aren’t just staying for mere days but have set up shop in what they describe as a permanent shanty town. They say the highway provides shelter, a sense of safety and even emotional support.

However, neighbors and homeless advocacy groups say the area has become a plague and an eyesore, a rodent-infested and lawless sector in the middle of the city’s downtown where police presence is rare and drug use and violence are rampant.

“The tents attract drug dealers, who move in under cover of the tents, preying on the vulnerable homeless population, many of whom have co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders,” Kegel said. “Women get raped in the tents, vulnerable people have their disability checks stolen, and violence has become common.”

City officials acknowledge the area presents a significant threat to health and safety but say they are hamstrung by budget constraints, constitutional protections and the complexities of dealing with a diverse population with a host of substance abuse and mental health issues.

The resurgence of the encampment is a difficult problem shaped by factors independent of the size of the local homeless population, which, according to the city, has dwindled by 83 percent since 2007 and now stands at 1,981.

“There are a lot of things inside of those tents that are dangerous,” said City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who represents District B, where the encampment is located. “We need help. We need resources. We need help to clean it up for good.”

A ‘no man’s land’

No one knows for sure when the homeless encampment started under the expressway, but Michael Duplantier, a retired lawyer who lives nearby in the 800 block of Baronne Street, said he can remember transients congregating there as early as the mid-1990s.

He said those in the camp would wreak havoc in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“It was scary at night,” he said. “There were gangs from the encampment who would break windows, break into buildings and do whatever they wanted.”

Duplantier said the encampment has waxed and waned over the years and that its current incarnation — though it’s the biggest he’s seen — hasn’t led to much crime in his neighborhood.

But he and others who live nearby said it makes residents uneasy and jeopardizes the safety of the homeless.

“It’s a no man’s land under there,” he said.

Cassandra Sharpe, a real estate agent who has lived nearby on Julia Street for 20 years, agreed. She said the encampment not only makes New Orleanians feel unsafe but is a turn-off for tourists.

“A downtown doesn’t work toward having ragged sofas and people urinating and drinking in public,” she said.

Sharpe said she’s frustrated by the lack of response from the city on what she sees as a critical safety issue.

“I see the same guy every day on a mattress passed out with his legs open. Who wants to look at that? They are not doing what they are supposed to be doing down at City Hall,” she said.

Duplantier said he’s also baffled by the lack of action. “You have to conclude at some point that the city has made a strategic policy decision to let this be here,” he said.

The area under the expressway is actually owned by the state, but responsibility for its upkeep lies with the city, according to Maj. Carl Saizan, of the State Police.

In the past, the city has conducted sweeps of the area, in which officials have removed everyone living there and sent them to shelters.

But those sweeps typically have been associated with large events.

In November 2012, two months before hosting the Super Bowl, the city removed 55 people from the area, according to media reports.

At the time, Ryan Berni, a spokesman for the mayor, called the area “a public health and public safety hazard” and said a fence would be built by the end of the year. It was never erected.

Tyler Gamble, the mayor’s current spokesman, said in a statement Thursday that the city is “preparing bids to repurpose and manage the area, including potentially fencing the area.”

He said the city sends a mechanical flusher to clean the camp every week.

Cantrell said she believes the sweeps are the right thing to do — both for the homeless population and for neighbors — but the city simply can’t afford them.

“People say you did it once, why can’t you continue to do that? That’s just not the case. The city doesn’t have the money to continue that process on a daily basis,” she said.

She added that the thinning number of police officers also may be impacting patrols in the area.

The Police Department did not respond to a request for comment. But those who regularly spend time in or near the encampment said officers are rarely seen there.

Duplantier and Cantrell both said state troopers, assigned to patrol the Crescent City Connection, used to help out with patrolling and cleaning the area.

However, Saizan said that after tolls for the bridge were ended, the size of that force was depleted and the remaining officers were focused on the bridge itself. “When the tolls went away, we reduced our area of responsibility,” he said.

‘Best shanty village’

The office of David Bottner, executive director of the New Orleans Mission, sits in a maroon building on Baronne Street, just a block from the sprawling encampment.

Bottner has been operating the mission for two years. His facility is close to its capacity of 220 men and 32 women each night, though he said he could take in about 50 more people if needed.

From his perspective, sweeping the area is the best thing for the homeless population.

“Whenever we’ve done that, as a collective unit, what happens is that they come to us. They start to receive medical attention, and they start to make wise choices,” he said.

Bottner said the increase in the size of the encampment is due to a “perfect storm” of factors, ranging from a perception that New Orleans has numerous construction jobs to a large population of ex-convicts.

It also stems partly from donations of food, tents and other goods by well-meaning individuals and church groups, he said — a practice he’d like to see end.

Bottner said that too often, small groups are simply opening their trunk and feeding the homeless under the expressway.

“People think they are doing a good service by giving money and food, but the need for food is already being serviced by the mission and the Ozanam Inn,” he said.

He said the uncoordinated donations dissuade people from coming into shelters.

Those who live under the bridge describe a stream of do-gooders who bring them everything from clothes to a smorgasbord of meals.

“This is one of the best shanty villages I’ve ever been to,” said one 54-year-old man, who said he had been living under the bridge for two months. The man declined to give his name. “I don’t think I’ll ever find another city like New Orleans,” he said.

On Thursday, a church group from Jacksonville, Florida, pulled up with 30 to 40 teenagers in tow and handed out food and water.

Corey Markles, a 25-year-old youth pastor from Crossroads Church, said the group was trying to provide not only food but also entertainment.

They staged a talent show, where members sang karaoke.

One girl serenaded the encampment with the lyrics, “You’re amazing, just the way you are,” from a song by Bruno Mars. Others did back handsprings and cartwheels next to a pile of empty plastic flasks and a man lying on the ground in his underwear.

Cantrell said she tried to propose an ordinance to ban such impromptu feedings but was told it would be unconstitutional.

Bottner said he often loses people from his discipleship program to the allure of living under the bridge. “It brings us back to square one,” he said.

He’s hoping to raise $500,000 to create a day room, with fitness equipment and other activities, that would attract some of the transient population during the day. He’s asked the city to help him by paying the homeless minimum wages to cut the grass, rather than a for-profit company, and sending the savings to the mission, but he has yet to hear a response.

A sense of community

The stories of those who live under the expressway are diverse. Some drifted to New Orleans seeking work. Others lost jobs or bottomed out on drugs or alcohol. Some are seeking actively to change their lives, while others say they are content to live under the expressway.

Many are mentally ill; some wander around, talking to an invisible audience.

Melvin Wallace, 53, bobbed rhythmically near his shopping cart on Wednesday. His teeth were brown and crumbling, his pants far too big for his slender figure. He had a blue New Testament perched on top of one of his shopping carts. With a large grin, he unleashed a monologue about how his life had changed for the worse since Hurricane Katrina.

Others said institutional barriers — not having an ID or a birth certificate — have forced them onto the streets. Scott, a 41-year-old man who said he has been living in a tent under the bridge for more than a year, said that after spending three years in prison on a marijuana charge, he ended up on the streets, without any identification.

Some residents of the encampment say it is generally peaceful, while others described episodes of violence. One woman said she’d had a knife held to her throat, and others have witnessed sexual assaults. According to NOPD crime maps, a rape was reported a block away from the encampment on June 14.

Bottner said a common bond motivates the homeless to congregate there, no matter how many times the encampment is broken up.

“There is a sense of community that they have with one another. They feel so much shame in society that having their brothers, their community and their friends around — even though it’s dysfunctional — it makes them feel loved,” he said.

On Thursday, Malcolm Scott, a hulking 52-year-old with arms like tree trunks, beckoned a reporter over to where he sat nibbling on a donated ham sandwich.

A former football standout for LSU, Scott played two seasons as a tight end in the NFL before getting injured.

He said he’s working an occasional construction job for minimum wage, while spending his nights at shelters.

“I’ll stay at the mission for 21 days, the Oz for 14 days, then maybe with a girl until she kicks me out,” he said. “I’ve been stuck here for a long time.”

“The TV stations almost did a story on me,” he added. “If you write about me, make sure you mention I’m an LSU Tiger.”