Just hours before a city deadline ordering homeless people living under the Pontchartrain Expressway at Camp and Calliope streets to get rid of their tents and furniture, nearly a dozen tents still stood Saturday afternoon as their owners paced about, wondering what to do.
“Where are we supposed to put our belongings?” asked a 49-year-old homeless man named Greg, who refused to give his last name for fear of retribution. “It’s unconstitutional.”
Greg and others who had made the intersection home in recent weeks were given 72 hours’ notice Wednesday to relocate “obstructions” by Saturday night. Six days earlier, the City Council had passed an ordinance prohibiting furniture, tents and other items “not intended for outdoor use or other semipermanent structures” on public rights of way.
As Saturday night’s deadline loomed, however, several of the homeless said they didn’t feel they had anywhere else to turn for shelter, citing limits that organizations such as the New Orleans Mission and the Salvation Army impose on how long people can stay there.
Some, like Greg, indicated they would wait and see what happened before packing up their tents, blankets, suitcases and other personal belongings spread beneath the rumbling expressway. Others said they’d be packing up shortly before the 8 p.m. deadline, moving once again after the city forced them last month to vacate their camp set up under the Pontchartrain Expressway a few blocks away on the other side of St. Charles Avenue.
The new ordinance, introduced by City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell at the request of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, is designed to protect the public health, Cantrell said after it passed 5-2.
While officials insist it wasn’t created to target the homeless population, it supports efforts to treat homeless encampments, like the one at Camp and Calliope, as “public health hazards” that need to be cleared out. That’s what happened when the camp stretching between South Claiborne and St. Charles avenues was cleared so the city could clean the area, which reportedly was infested by rats.
Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, a former Civil District Court judge, said she thought the act was unconstitutional. Even if it does not explicitly target the city’s homeless encampments in writing, she said, it does in practice — thereby providing an avenue through which to attack the city’s most vulnerable population.
Although city officials have said they are working with agencies to find transitional housing for the homeless, several of those camped at Camp and Calliope insisted there was no vacant shelter ready to take them in.
“They’re full. The shelters are full,” said Hal Jefferson, 55, who said he became homeless after he moved here from California looking for work but couldn’t find any. “It’s not like you can stay there for three months anyway.”
Jefferson said he could see both sides of the story. He didn’t have a tent to move — just a blanket to lie on — so he admittedly had less concern about the ordinance’s focus on furniture, or furniture-like property.
“Personally, it doesn’t bother me one way or another. ... People are trying to drive and they can’t see. The tents ... it’s a distraction — it could cause an accident,” Jefferson said. “But the people living out here — they got nowhere to go.”
However, Juston Winfield, 25, said the city’s actions are a personal attack against him and the people he’s gotten to know as neighbors.
“The City Council, the NOPD — they’re making us criminals,” Winfield said. “Some of us are just looking for jobs. The shelters make you take all your property when you leave. If we have a place to put our property, we can leave and go look for a job.”
Moreover, Winfield said, the ordinance may actually encourage illegal behavior.
“People are gonna be breaking into abandoned houses around here because they’re making us go,” he said. “All they’re gonna do is raise the crime rate by kicking us out of here.”