A massive downtown demolition project planned by the state to begin next week that will require removal of the burgeoning homeless encampment from nearby Duncan Plaza must be delayed to allow more time to find shelter for the roughly 150 people encamped in the public square, a New Orleans official said Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for City Councilwoman Stacy Head, whose district includes Duncan Plaza, said the city needs at least another month to complete its strategy to relocate the homeless population that has been growing steadily in the shadow of City Hall for months.
"This is a monumental task. Right now, there is just nowhere for these people to go," said Ruth Idakula, Head's executive assistant, who has been working with Mayor Ray Nagin's administration and homeless advocates to find a solution to the problem.
"We're trying to put the pieces together, but it's not something we can do overnight. If they go forward with this, it's just going to be a big mess."
State officials were unavailable late Tuesday to respond to the request for additional time.
Nagin administration officials could not be reached for comment, but in the past mayoral staffers have emphasized that they don't support emptying Duncan Plaza until housing is found for residents of the small tent city.
Design work continues
The state is preparing to tear down the shuttered nine-story state office building that borders Duncan Plaza, along with an adjacent building that once housed the state Supreme Court, which has relocated to the French Quarter. Plans call for the two structures to be replaced with a 336,000-square-foot building estimated to cost $75 million to $80 million.
While the state intends to design the new building to accommodate state offices now located in other parts of the city, that plan remains a work in progress.
The top official with the agency that oversees state-financed construction projects said a contractor is scheduled to begin erecting a fence Tuesday around the perimeter of Duncan Plaza, which will be transformed into a construction site over the next several months.
The barrier around the park, which will stretch along Loyola Avenue and Perdido and Gravier streets, was supposed to go up a week ago, but state officials agreed to delay the start date to give the city more time, said Jerry Jones, director of the Office of Facilities Planning.
"We're trying to make this transition as smooth as possible," Jones said. "We're hoping that social service agencies and the city will step forward.
"We build stuff, so we're probably not the best folks" to find shelter for the homeless.
Jones said members of his staff have visited Duncan Plaza in recent weeks to begin alerting the occupants about the impending work.
"We've tried to communicate to them that this is for their own safety," he said. "And I've been told that they are a good group of people who understand what's happening. They are not a rowdy group of folks."
The idea of emptying Duncan Plaza in less than a week clearly shocked the people most affected: figures in hooded sweatshirts who sat stiffly just off Perdido Street on Tuesday evening, bracing for another cold night.
Longtime park residents Robert Wells and Wilbur Buchanan said state surveyors recently told them that only the cement plaza in front of the State Office Building would be fenced off, within the next month or so.
But plans encompass the entire park and are set for next week. Wells, when told that Tuesday, spoke slowly and in disbelief. "I guess I will have to sleep somewhere else," he said, suggesting some grim options: underneath the overpass at Canal Street and Claiborne Avenue or in an abandoned house.
Wells had hoped to get a motel spot just before Thanksgiving, when homeless service consortium UNITY of Greater New Orleans came to the park with a list of 88 people who had been approved for housing assistance. Instead, he said, the motel spots filled up quickly, and he ended up with a voucher for the Salvation Army emergency shelter in Uptown.
Most nights, he said, that voucher is useless to him, because the Salvation Army closes its doors around 5 p.m. and he works as a waiter at a French Quarter restaurant until 2 a.m.
Last week, Wells acted as if sleeping in the plaza was no big deal. He's now changed his mind. "What I honestly and truthfully am hoping for right now is housing," he said, rubbing his hands together against the chilly air.
151 people per night
Tuesday night, Wells' tent was one of nearly 100 that covered nearly every inch of green space. Two recently created subdivisions -- rows of bedrolls, Federal Emergency Management Agency blue tarp and more tents -- extended along the Gravier Street edge of the Supreme Court building and into the main public library's side lawn.
Homeless outreach workers conducted a census two nights in a row last week and found an average of 151 people sleeping in Duncan Plaza. Outreach worker Shamus Rohn said he and other staff members had already been screening all park residents to see what services they needed. To close down the park hurriedly would waste that work, he said.
"For us, clearing Duncan Plaza means 151 scattered people that we won't be able to find next week," he said.
Last week, UNITY got the go-ahead to spend $3.9 million of Road Home money earmarked for the homeless, a population the agency estimates has grown to 12,000 in Orleans and Jefferson parishes.
The state's approval came on the day before Thanksgiving, but only after UNITY's staff spent that day finding 88 homeless people who were to be housed using the agency's own operating budget. Some of those 88 are still living in motels while they await apartments; UNITY staff had hoped to house them all by the end of this week and then begin work with a new group.
UNITY Executive Director Martha Kegel questioned the state's pressing need to either displace or jail the "very disabled population" from Duncan Plaza.
"It doesn't seem like it is so urgent to rope the place off," she said. "At a time when we are actively, intensely planning to house these people in the very near future, it seems precipitous," Kegel said.
Next week, after the fence is built, Jones said, the state will prepare the site for the first phase of demolition: the removal of lead, asbestos and other hazardous materials. That contract, which has not yet been awarded, will cost an estimated $1.5 million, Jones said, and the work should begin in February.
Work under the $2.8 demolition contract, which also has yet to be awarded, is slated to commence in March and take about six months to complete, Jones said. A multiple-story parking lot at the rear of the site will not be torn down.
Jones said construction on the new structure, which will be twice the size of the 176,000-square-foot State Office Building, will last about two years. The building is still under design, he said.
The State Office Building and the old Supreme Court sustained heavy damage from Hurricane Katrina.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Posted by rich board at 9:45 AM