A proposed city ordinance, scheduled for a vote at Thursday’s City Council meeting, would make it easier for the police and health departments to crack down on homeless encampments that pop up in New Orleans, such as a tent city that recently appeared at Camp and Calliope streets.
The ordinance is sponsored by Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and has the support of the Mayor’s Office. It has been criticized by a Loyola University law professor and the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, both of whom say it could be unconstitutional.
The proposal comes just a week after the city removed about 160 homeless individuals from an encampment under the Pontchartrain Expressway after declaring the area a public health hazard.
As a result of the sweep, the city said, 84 homeless individuals were placed in local shelters. However, others simply moved to new sites, such as a few blocks away at Camp and Calliope.
Garnesha Crawford, a spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office, said Wednesday she believes the ordinance will pass with full support from the council. She said it will strengthen the city’s legal justification for removing tents, furniture and other property from public spaces.
“When this public health advisory was issued, the smaller camps had not yet formed and there were no health hazards in these areas,” Crawford said. “The purpose of the new law is to strengthen the city’s right to clear these areas.”
The ordinance is music to the ears of Jeff and Brigitte Keiser, who live close to the new encampment. After the city booted the homeless from under the expressway, tents quickly popped up in a small patch of neutral ground near their home.
There are about 20 tents there now. The couple and their neighbors said the presence of the homeless has led to an increase in trash, rodents and other problems.
“More furniture has recently turned up,” Brigitte Keiser said Wednesday. “There is a humongous sofa that is basically blocking the sidewalk, and there’s more trash.”
The proposed ordinance states that “the erection or placement of any tent, item of household furniture not intended for outdoor use, or other semi-permanent structure shall be considered an encumbrance” when placed on public streets, sidewalks or other public spaces.
David Winkler-Schmit, a spokesman for Cantrell, said the councilwoman has asked the city to remove the new encampment if doing so would be constitutional.
Whether the proposed ordinance passes constitutional muster is also up for debate.
Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor and director of the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center, believes it doesn’t.
Quigley said the ordinance fails to specify two key elements: a minimum time notice that must be given to homeless individuals before their property is seized and an inventory process to ensure their property isn’t disposed of unlawfully.
“Theoretically, with this notice, police could just show up at any spot where the homeless are, evict them on the spot and throw their stuff in a garbage truck,” he said.
Quigley said he believes the law is well-intentioned but that without more specific language, the city could end up on the wrong end of a significant legal judgment after a future sweep. He pointed to a federal lawsuit in which Fresno, California was ordered to pay about $1 million to the homeless and their attorneys for violating due process rights by destroying property.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU in Louisiana, said elements of the ordinance may violate the constitutional right to free assembly.
Esman said courts have established that it’s legal for homeless people to panhandle, congregate and sleep in public places, but the question of whether they’re entitled to put up tents in public spaces has not been settled.
She and Quigley said they also are worried about another section of the ordinance that says anyone who engages in an activity that “makes passage by pedestrians inordinately difficult or conducts activities which impede access to the public rights of way” can be ordered to stop.
Though it is unclear from the text, Winkler-Schmit said this portion of the ordinance is intended to prevent children from entering the road to ask for donations from motorists, a common practice among youth groups and sports teams trying to raise funds.
Crawford said the ordinance was researched by the city’s Law Department and is fully constitutional.
Quigley disagreed. “There is a right way to do this and there is a wrong way,” he said. “The city of Fresno paid $1 million because they did it the way (New Orleans) is doing it.”