The City Council on Thursday will again consider a measure aimed at making it easier to crack down on homeless encampments in New Orleans. The proposal was sent back to a council committee two weeks ago for further debate and refinement.
The council’s Community Development Committee agreed Wednesday to send the ordinance, introduced by Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell at the request of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, back to the full council with one revision.
The proposed ordinance rewrites city law to specifically define items such as tents and furniture as obstructions, and therefore illegal, on public rights of way, including sidewalks, neutral grounds and the areas under elevated roadways. The latest version omits language that would have called for violators to be fined.
The measure was deferred at the last council meeting after initial debate made clear that the body was divided on the idea.
The move is related to the recent dismantling of a tent city in an area underneath the Pontchartrain Expressway, after which many of those displaced set up new camps nearby, but city officials said it is not intended to target the homeless population exclusively.
The city called the area under the expressway between South Claiborne and St. Charles avenues a public health hazard and said it needed to be vacated so that it could be cleaned and treated for rodents.
Before the order to leave, a large number of homeless residents had been using the area as an encampment for many months, outfitting it with tents and furniture. Since the order, the site has been blocked off by police barricades. The city intends to convert the area into a fenced-off parking lot.
The proposed ordinance would add language that specifically defines as obstructions “any tent, item of household furniture not intended for outdoor use or other semipermanent structure.” Under the ordinance, tents and furniture would be labeled “de facto obstructions” if they are located in a public space, even if they aren’t obstructing passage.
Those items were used at the expressway encampment and are in use at new camps that have popped up in the past few week, such as at Camp and Calliope streets.
With one exception, the public comment period Wednesday drew only opponents of the measure, who said it unfairly targets the homeless population.
“I think you’re putting the cart before the horse,” Elizabeth Cook said. “It’s a punitive measure. It’s designed to make the homeless invisible.”
Councilman James Gray said, as he did at the last council meeting, that he didn’t see the need to clarify the law because obstructing the public right of way already is illegal.
Gray said he also viewed the proposed ordinance as taking aim at the homeless.
“I don’t see why we ought to add an ordinance that either does what the old law does or does too much,” he said. “I think we ought to enforce the laws we have … and not add more type to the paper as we’re doing in this particular case.”
But council President Stacy Head said not modifying the law was akin to sanctioning the use of public land by private individuals.
“When people stake out ground in tents and sofas, they have co-opted that public land from anybody else using it. I am not OK with that,” she said. “It seems to me that by virtue of their size, tents and sofas and La-Z-Boys do in fact prohibit others from using their public space. I think it’s a logical way of addressing an issue.”
The administration said the erection of tents has become a serious public safety issue and the law is aimed at alleviating it.
The issue will be taken up by the full council Thursday afternoon.