Monday, February 11, 2008

City may move homeless from underpass to shelter

Mayor Ray Nagin's administration appears to be preparing to move the city's biggest homeless colony, a highly visible collection of people and bedrolls just off Canal Street, to a Central City emergency shelter.

Some City Council members and leading advocates for the homeless say they are not aware of the plan, although the director of the New Orleans Mission confirmed that the city accepted his proposal on Friday.

Nagin alluded to a plan for the homeless last week during an appearance on WWL-TV. He said he had recently seen a man in the encampment on Claiborne Avenue beneath Interstate 10 "drinking beer and just flipping the bird to citizens."

Calling the scene "a mess," Nagin said that before the end of February, the city will begin enforcing its "habitation laws."

"We've got more mental cases out there," the mayor said. "It's unsanitary under the bridge. And we have beds for these folks and they just don't want to take them. . . . So we're going to try to push the issue, if you will."

While Nagin did not specify which local habitation law he was referring to, the most often-used ordinance was found unconstitutional by the courts more than two decades ago and stricken from the municipal code six years ago. But in past years it still has been seen as a tool by local officials who wring their hands at the homeless people who linger in public spaces.

The fast-growing colony on Claiborne Avenue, now drawing more than 200 people a night, was repeatedly cited at a recent City Council meeting that featured testimony from social service officials.

"We cannot accept this any longer," Councilwoman Stacy Head said. "We've got to fix the problem and we've got to fix it in short order."

Martha Kegel, head of Unity of Greater New Orleans, a coalition that is working to house 250 people who previously camped out in Duncan Plaza, across from City Hall, told the council that homeless people are suffering at Claiborne Avenue. "We still have a humanitarian crisis," she said.

When asked about the mayor's plan to clear people out of the Claiborne site, neither Kegel, Head nor council President Arnie Fielkow knew anything about it this week.

Better or worse?

News of the mayor's televised comments traveled quickly to the hodgepodge of tents, sofas, blankets and mattresses now stretching across five blocks on a cement neutral ground beneath I-10.

People sleeping there said they feel targeted. Shouting to be heard over the din of cars passing overhead, they said they have little choice but to sleep at the site.
We're already on the streets, where else are we supposed to go?" asked Sara Brown, 40, who before Hurricane Katrina rented an apartment Uptown and worked as a dishwasher in the French Quarter. Like many others interviewed beneath the expressway, Brown is a native New Orleanian who was displaced by the storm and returned to the city to find rents sharply raised.

During a news conference called Wednesday to react to Nagin's comments, Mike Howells of the activist group C3/Hands Off Iberville said, "We're going to make the situation worse by arresting people for things we failed to do."

Sgt. Joe Narcisse, a spokesman for the New Orleans Police Department, said there are no orders to crack down on the homeless. "No plans have been shared with us," he said.

Law was struck down

According to mayoral spokeswoman Ceeon Quiett, the city planned to work with the NOPD Homeless Assistance Collaborative, a unit begun several years ago that uses social service methods, rather than arrests, in moving homeless individuals off the streets. But Quiett also said: "The habitation laws, as all city laws and ordinances, are enforceable and all citizens are expected to comply."

However, New Orleans' "unlawful public habitation" ordinance was thrown out by the courts more than 20 years ago, said Judson Mitchell, a Loyola University law clinic attorney.

Even if the mayor asked police to enforce public-habitation laws, the charges are sure to be thrown out in Municipal Court, he said.

Homeless people sleeping in public once were routinely charged with "unlawful public habitation," but the ordinance was successfully challenged in federal court in 1986 by the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corp. and the American Civil Liberties Union.

But such arrests continued until recently. In 2000, for instance, N.O. police booked 657 people on the charge, according to police records at the time. In September 2001, the ordinance was wiped off the books. Still, during a French Quarter cleanup in 2002, five people were arrested under provisions of the defunct ordinance, records show.

Mitchell hasn't seen anyone charged with it lately. "The police seem to know that the ordinance doesn't exist anymore," he said. Municipal Court judges Paul Sens and Sean Early both labeled the once-common public habitation charge as "rare."

Mission to offer beds

People at the Claiborne encampment recalled seeing the mayor's sport utility vehicle pass. Referring to the mayor's comments about an obscene gesture, Brown said, "That man, he was flipping off the mayor . . . because we're out here and he's doing nothing for us."

In fact, the mayor is trying to find relief for the Claiborne assembly, Quiett said. What the mayor was speaking about on television was his work "with the religious community to make available additional bed space," she said. This month, the city plans "to transition many, if not all, of the homeless citizens inhabiting the areas under the Claiborne bridge to locations where they can receive shelter and social service care," she said.

More than 100 beds, Quiett said, will be provided in a tent behind the New Orleans Mission on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City. The mission's director, Ron Gonzales, confirmed that the mayor's office on Friday accepted his plan to provide shelter for the homeless on Claiborne Avenue. A timetable hasn't yet been set, he said.

Late last year, the city awarded the mission $100,000 to buy a tent with air-conditioning and heating that can sleep 130 men, he said. A facility for women run by the mission currently has openings for about a dozen people, he said.

In exchange for housing people, Gonzales has proposed that the city pay $200 a night to pay for a fire marshal who would stand guard at New Orleans Mission, a measure made necessary by fire hazards caused by storm damage. He also is asking the city to pay for some storm-related repairs to eliminate his code violations for good, he said.

Gonzales plans to keep people in his shelter while they grapple with addiction, mental illness and other challenges, he said.

"They'll be better able to deal with those issues because they'll be there with us," he said.

He conceded, however, that the mission isn't set up to deal with intensive mental illness. He said he has a case worker but no licensed social worker on staff.

The mission plan faces other hurdles. Brown said she would not go to the mission because she would have to be separated from her boyfriend. Others said they wouldn't sleep there because there's nowhere to stay during the day, forcing them to tote their possessions around town from morning until evening.

Gonzales said the new plan for housing the homeless is not yet final. But he talked optimistically about approaching the Claiborne crowd with a team of outreach workers, accompanied by police.