Council acts to crack down on homeless encampments _lowres

Advocate staff photo by J.T. BLATTY-- in New Orleans, La. Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. Recent homeless encampment on Calliope and Camp Street. Smaller encampments continue to pop up after the recent city dispersement of the large homeless encampment under the Pontchartrain Expressway.

The City Council approved a measure Thursday that will make it easier for authorities to remove homeless encampments in New Orleans.

The ordinance, introduced by Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell at the request of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, rewrites city law to specifically define items such as tents and furniture as illegal obstructions when placed on public rights of way, including sidewalks, neutral grounds and the areas under elevated roadways.

The measure passed 5-2, with council members James Gray and Nadine Ramsey opposed.

Gray said he voted against the measure because laws already exist to protect public rights of way from obstructions. He said the ordinance appeared to be an attack on the homeless.

Ramsey said she was uncomfortable that the ordinance does not require the city to provide prior notice to people who are in violation of the law before their belongings are removed.

“We know that’s not constitutionally right,” said Ramsey, a former Civil District Court judge.

The administration said that even though such language would not be codified in law, it would be included as part of the city’s policy for dealing with homeless encampments. That policy will be presented to the council in the form of a resolution at a later date, City Attorney Sharonda Williams said.

“My concern is you’re going to have the most vulnerable people being subjected to the whims of whomever is out there that day,” Ramsey said. “I think any protections we can give ... because we can say this is not about homeless people, but it is. That’s why it came up.”

The ordinance follows last month’s 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 the measure is not intended to target the homeless population exclusively.

The city gave 72 hours’ notice for homeless encampments between South Claiborne and St. Charles avenues to be cleared. It declared the area a public health hazard that needed to be vacated so that it could be cleaned and treated for rodents.

This ordinance builds on that action with the intention of protecting public health, Cantrell said.

“The purpose of this ordinance is to update the city’s authority regarding public rights of way and public spaces,” she said. “The bill is not just about the recent issues we have had in protecting health and public safety when the homeless encampments were removed under the freeway but proactive ways to address those concerns before they reach that level.”

Councilwoman Stacy Head said the ordinance’s impact would extend beyond the homeless, citing “frat boys” as an example of another group with a tendency to erect tents on the neutral ground and in other public places.

But Gray said current laws already deal with those sorts of violations. He said the timing and very specific language of the ordinance led him to conclude that it is designed solely to affect the homeless.

“I’m going to vote against this ordinance not because I want fraternity boys or anyone else putting sofas on Canal Street or any other place,” Gray said. “I’m going to vote against it because a vote for it, in my mind, appears to be an attack on the homeless, no matter how we frame it, no matter how we say it.”

He added: “If this statute means no more than what it says, then it’s unnecessary because current law already covers everything in this statute. If it means more than what it says, if it’s really giving us an added tool to use against the homeless, then I think we ought not be looking for that added tool to deal with the homeless.”

The ordinance defines as obstructions “any tent, item of household furniture not intended for outdoor use or other semipermanent structure.” 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 weeks, such as at Camp and Calliope streets.