In the early cool of a Saturday morning this month, Reedell Parker was among the few people stirring in the homeless encampment on South Claiborne Avenue.

In the camp — a cluttered, ever-changing collection of tents and bedrolls underneath the raised section of South Claiborne between Canal Street and Tulane Avenue — Parker, 26, took the quiet morning hours to plan his day.

Top of the list: He needed to find a new food-delivery job.

If he could save a bit of money, his goal was a small apartment. Nothing more than a place to sleep, really. Maybe a cooking pot to make grits and hot sausage in the morning. He also wanted a fresh haircut. Then he’d be set.

“If I get in (an apartment) somewhere, I can stay,” he said.

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Unemployed Reedell Parker, 26, stands under the North Claiborne Avenue overpass in New Orleans, Saturday, May 18, 2019.

Parker is among a few hundred people living and sleeping in homeless camps underneath the city’s elevated roadways, mostly those that encircle the Central Business District.

It’s a situation that has drawn increased attention from New Orleans residents and political leaders in recent months. Earlier this month, the City Council passed an ordinance meant to codify how the camps are cleaned.

But the council’s focus on the camps belies the data, which show that the overall number of homeless people in New Orleans has declined over the past several years.

In January, the annual “Point in Time” count, conducted by housing advocates from UNITY of Greater New Orleans, showed that 1,179 people were living in emergency shelters and on the streets in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, roughly 90 percent of them in Orleans.

That one-day count was a full 90 percent lower than the post-Katrina high in 2007, but in recent years the decline has slowed and the numbers have begun to level out.

Reports from the UNITY database also showed that while UNITY agencies housed more than 1,000 people over a year’s time ending in early 2019, twice as many new people fell into homelessness in the same period.

“New Orleans is at a critical point where our numbers could see a rise,” said Martha Kegel, UNITY’s executive director.

Dealing with squalor

Periodically, short-lived homeless camps have sprouted up in neighborhood parks, on neutral grounds or underneath more far-flung overpasses in New Orleans. But those camps’ residents will eventually move, pushed out by neighborhood outcries that often lead to sweeps, warrant checks or frequent cleanups.

Underneath the raised roadways near the CBD, however, homeless people are not only protected from hot sun and driving rain; they are close to health care and social services, and a short walk from plenty of low-wage jobs in the French Quarter and CBD.

Despite the camps’ convenient location, however, they are squalid, often reeking of urine and spoiled food. Rats are a common sight. Neighbors also frequently complain.

“These are true drug addicts and drunks. They’ll walk up to you to say that they have a baby they need to feed or that they need to put gas in the car,” said real estate agent Cassandra Sharpe, who lives a few blocks from the camps under the Pontchartrain Expressway. 

She said that she was driving past Coliseum Square when she saw a man urinate on a bush in view of a group of astonished tourists admiring the statue of Margaret Haughery.

To address hygienic concerns, the city’s Health Department has staged weekly cleanups of the camps for the past year. City crews power-wash filth from concrete surfaces and discard any tents, tarps or household furniture that could be breeding grounds for rats and vermin.

The recently passed ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Joe Giarrusso, mostly provides rules for those cleanups and includes a requirement to give notice that cleaning crews will be coming through.

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A notice for homeless camps from the city is taped under the Pontchartrain Expressway in New Orleans, Saturday, May 18, 2019.

The ordinance was edited heavily after it was first introduced to purge some of its more controversial clauses, which designated certain spots as “routine remediation” and “temporary emphasis areas” off-limits to homeless camps and subject to daily or weekly inspections and/or cleanings.

But the measure’s final version seemed pointless, according to members of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration who spoke about it recently. On top of its potential to “really hurt people,” it “lost sight of the long-term actual solution: housing people,” said Liana Elliott, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff.

Dr. Jennifer Avegno, an emergency-room doctor who heads up the city’s Health Department, instituted departmental guidelines last year that went further than the new law. As a result, Avegno said, while homeless camps in other cities have seen outbreaks of infections such as Hepatitis A and even typhus, those in New Orleans have avoided similar outbreaks, through her department’s focus on vaccinations along with the regular camp cleanups.

At a tipping point?

Giarrusso said in an interview that starting last summer, his staff followed up with the Cantrell administration about cleanups of camps like one located near the Metairie Road exit from the expressway. They were unsatisfied with the responses.

“The information we got back was minimal,” he said.

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Homeless tents setup under the North Claiborne Avenue overpass in New Orleans, Saturday, May 18, 2019.

The ordinance’s supporters and critics, however, ultimately share the same goal: to see fewer New Orleans residents living outdoors in squalor.

For more than a decade, the city’s ongoing recovery from Katrina helped to bring down the homelessness numbers. More renovated houses meant more homeless people had access to family members with spare bedrooms and couches.

But some say that those ongoing renovations now may have reached a tipping point, pushing squatters out of blighted homes and onto the streets.

UNITY has no data showing that sort of displacement, said Kegel, the group’s executive director. Instead, the overwhelming conclusion of researchers studying homelessness is that numbers rise when a city has “insufficient amounts of affordable rental housing,” Kegel said.

Big-picture concepts, such as data trends and City Hall debates, are on the radar of few people in the South Claiborne camps. Most are focused on day-to-day survival.

All around the camp, the complexities of homelessness were evident recently: Some people were eager, even desperate, to be housed while others seemed uninterested in shelter, largely because of struggles with substance abuse or psychosis.

Others, like Parker, were a cipher.

Early on a Saturday morning, Parker sat by himself, using another resident’s wheelchair as a chair. He was interested in understanding more about the new city ordinance. He spoke lovingly about his grandparents in eastern New Orleans, about music lessons and academic camps that had been part of his childhood.

As a young adult, he’d gotten off track, ending up in court for drug possession and other petty charges, in court hearings that questioned his mental competency.

Even as he discussed the ordinance, he had moments of keen lucidity. “I appreciate them protecting my rights,” he said. “But it doesn’t give me a place to lay my head.”

Then, in the next moments, his thoughts raced ahead and his conclusions became muddled in a way that made no sense to his listeners or to him.

“Sometimes I get overwhelmed,” he said.

The camp is a noisy, ugly, dirty environment, the kind of place that could drive a person to a breaking point.

If the new ordinance becomes law, the city would theoretically institute more regular cleanings and would have to post notices 24 hours in advance of any cleaning. The ordinance also mandates store-and-release practices for people’s possessions, to address complaints that camps were basically clear-cut by city sanitation workers, who cut up tents and threw them into garbage trucks along with people’s other meager possessions.

UNITY’s advocacy committee thought the law missed the mark. “The ordinance would increase the amount of time and attention spent on removing homeless people’s possessions and moving homeless people around, neither of which will reduce homelessness,” they wrote in a letter to the council.

“People are already so stressed living on the street. They are so stressed,” said Nan Roman, who heads up the National Alliance to End Homelessness and supports the idea of a clean camp environment. Still, she opposed the new ordinance because it seemed too focused on “moving people around.”

Some successes

Near the riverside edge of the South Claiborne concrete median, an elderly man sat on a neatly made bedroll with a leopard-print quilt, set inside an L-shaped room made of cardboard boxes stacked three high. “I’m pretty much satisfied with where I am,” said the man, who declined to give his name.

He used to live on a patch of green grass closer to Poydras Street, but after a cleanup notice was posted there, he’d spent all night moving his five dozen boxes to this spot on the median.

Researchers say that “chronically homeless” people — the ones who remain on the streets for months or years — make up only about 10 to 15 percent of the homeless population. Many of these people have been helped through subsidized housing known as Permanent Supportive Housing, or PSH, paired with case workers who visit frequently to help people stay stably housed.

The widespread use of PSH and some similar strategies is credited with bringing down homeless numbers in cities across the U.S. Federal policy and pots of money have also helped to speed up the housing of other subgroups of homeless, including families and veterans.

In New Orleans, UNITY agencies used to take an average of six months to house a homeless family, but that time is now down to 41 days.

The remaining people who are homeless at any given time are cycling through the condition after a lost job, a relapse into abuse, to escape a bad domestic situation or any other of a host of reasons.

Still, in cities like New Orleans where job opportunities haven’t kept pace with rapidly rising housing prices, advocates are worried that recent gains may be reversed.

Before Katrina, half of all apartments in the city used to rent for less than $500. Now, it’s difficult to find anything under $1,000. At the same time median household income in New Orleans has fallen from $39,000 in 1999 to $37,000 in 2017 when adjusted for inflation, according to a February report by The Data Center.

The same report found that, between 2004 and 2017, median gross rent — rent plus utilities — rose from $742 to $962 in New Orleans, a 30 percent increase after adjusting for inflation.

UNITY estimates have found that roughly 12 percent of local people living in poverty become homeless at some point each year.

The “churn” of homelessness is not immediately detectable from the official one-day count of homeless people each year. But over the entire year for 2018, the UNITY collaborative assisted a total of 10,368 homeless people in the two parishes.

The camps see a similar churn: Though official counts show 430 people sleeping outdoors on a a single night, there may be 4,000 over a year’s time, advocates said.

Not all of them will require much help. Most people find their own way out of homelessness within a few days, weeks or months. But without increases in low-cost housing, the churn continues; as some people leave homelessness in New Orleans, new people take their place.

'The most humiliating thing'

Earlier this month, a 50-year-old West Bank native who calls himself Catahoula saw no immediate solution to his homelessness.

He’d been laid off from his job and lost his apartment several months ago. But he said he was saving his money and living out of his truck — until one day, someone stole his pickup containing his welder’s mask, shirt and equipment, leaving him without a way to ply his trade of 32 years. The truck was later found burned and abandoned, but his equipment was never located, he said.

“Catahoula” hasn’t been homeless as long as some of the others, and he is determined to get back on his feet. But some days he sits on Calliope Street, holding a cardboard sign asking for work.

“It’s the most humiliating thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said.

A new HUD grant will help house people like him temporarily, with an emphasis on connections to employment, Kegel said. “But for the vast majority of homeless people, there will still be nothing available,” she said. 

Parker keeps with him two pairs of pants — one khaki, one black — to make sure that he’s ready to work at a moment’s notice. He also has to find a new bicycle, since his last one was stolen during his last delivery gig. He’s worried, but he is hopeful. “All I need is a few breaks,” he said.

That sort of plucky optimism, even in the face of setbacks, characterizes how New Orleans dealt with its biggest crisis in homelessness: the sprawling camps after Hurricane Katrina, said Roman, the National Alliance to End Homelessness head.

“When compared with other places, New Orleans has so many of the necessary pieces and experience, to do outreach in large encampments and get people off the street,” she said.

But to passersby, some camp residents seem almost unmovable. Between the metal legs of the Pontchartrain Expressway, a small cadre of homeless people have carved out a little protective village, bounded by hanging blankets, at the intersection of Magazine and Calliope streets.

There, two military veterans with some mental-health and medical concerns live with their little dog Shadow and their longtime friend “Crip.”

If they had testified before the City Council, they said, they would have argued that tents should be allowed in the camps if residents keep them in a sanitary condition.

They also would have told the council that they had rejected the assistance of the campaign to house all veterans because they didn’t like the idea of living in an apartment building under rules that seemed arbitrary. Instead, they’d like a place where they could live together on their own.

“We want our freedom,” they said, "but we won't rule out a house."


Follow Dan Swenson on Twitter, @nolagraphicsguy.