Flexing its political muscles despite Mayor LaToya Cantrell's objections, the New Orleans City Council passed rules Thursday for clearing homeless camps, saying its goal was to better address homelessness in the city.
But Cantrell's staffers said the rules, which require the city to collect and report data on people living under bridges and in other public spaces, could make their jobs harder and could stigmatize vulnerable residents.
A Cantrell aide would not say if the mayor intends to veto the measure, which was approved unanimously. It would take five votes to override a veto.
“To correct an inaccurate record, this ordinance does not criminalize homelessness, nor does it violate anyone’s constitutional rights,” said Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who sponsored the measure. “While (New Orleans police) may be on the scene, they are not leading these efforts.”
But city Health Department Director Jennifer Avegno said having rules that are “interpreted as restrictive” has caused backlash in other cities. “What we are asking is for time to sort it out and to get more areas of consensus,” she said.
The administration conducts regular sweeps of the homeless camps frequently seen under the Pontchartrain Expressway and in other areas, which officials say can pose threats to public health.
Officials give the people living at those sites 24 hours' notice before carrying away items like tents, mattresses and other belongings. At times, city officials have agreed to store items for those who request it, though such requests have been infrequent.
UNITY of Greater New Orleans, which works to coordinate homeless services, has come along on sweeps in past years to collect information about those in need of shelter, so that it can connect them to housing and other help.
But the City Council’s rules will put the burden of data-gathering on the administration, requiring its staffers to report back to the council in detail on the extent and nature of homelessness in the city.
“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Giarrusso.
The city would be required to store all personal property it collects and give people a period of time to come and retrieve it.
Notices would be printed in English, Vietnamese and Spanish.
But some housing advocates opposed the measure, allowing Cantrell’s camp to claim it was not embraced by those most involved in serving the homeless.
“The ordinance will 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,” said Joe Heeren-Mueller of UNITY.
Avegno said the city is ill-equipped to track data sought by the council such as the number of homeless pregnant women and the services they receive, and that attempting to do so would pull resources away from other priorities.
In a statement before the vote, Cantrell said homeless people “deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
“I do not support any efforts that distract from engaging and developing real solutions that meet people where they are and deal with the very real issues they are facing,” she added.
But Giarrusso and council members Helena Moreno and Jason Williams claimed the new rules largely codify what the administration or other groups already have been doing.
The episode is the latest clash between Cantrell and the council, who have also butted heads over a tax for senior citizen services and a recent shift in policies for city traffic cameras.
Editor's note, 5/10/19: An earlier version of the story said the city would be required to clean some areas once a day under the ordinance. The council has removed that requirement.