Councilwoman Shelley Midura on Monday summarized why Mayor Ray Nagin's administration wanted a new public habitation law to move vagrants to a bunkhouse at the New Orleans Mission.
"What you're saying is that we need a way to round them up and get them into the bunk beds. Is that a fair statement?" Midura asked Anthony Faciane, deputy director of neighborhood stabilization for the city's Office of Recovery Development and Administration.
That was fair, he told the council's Housing and Human Needs Committee.
But more than a month after city officials announced an initiative to enact a new law, which outlaws people living in public spaces and replaces one declared unconstitutional more than 20 years ago, the homeless compound under the elevated section of Interstate 10 remains entrenched.
"Is it legal? Has it worked?" Midura asked.
"Has the method worked anywhere?" Councilman James Carter asked.
When told by Faciane that the city couldn't yet afford to house and provide social services to Claiborne Avenue denizens, Carter responded, "So, the ordinance is premature?"
The meeting was punctuated with expressions of impatience about the visible homeless colony, a collection of people and bedrolls just off Canal Street. "What button needs to be pushed -- what needs to happen?" Midura asked Faciane.
Discussion about the public-habitation ordinance gave way to its underlying motive: making the Claiborne Avenue tent city disappear.
In the end, Faciane and Martha Kegel, head of the homeless-services collaborative UNITY of Greater New Orleans, agreed: The colony's days are numbered. Within three months, it'll be gone, said Kegel, who said state funds expected within the next few weeks will help move many of the homeless from under the bridge into government-subsidized apartments.
Moving many of the homeless awaited completion of a city-financed renovation of the dayroom at the New Orleans Mission, Faciane said. Finished Monday, it transformed the shelter from nights-only to a round-the-clock operation. Next week, the mission also will open a family center, for women with children, he said.
What the mission calls its "bunkhouse," an air-conditioned, heated Quonset-style tent erected at the back of its property, can hold 140 men. About 100 more men can sleep on the mission's second floor, but only if the shelter hires a "firewatch," because of its building's current fire hazards. Women stay in a separate house, which has space for eight more, said Ron Gonzales, the shelter's director.
But the Nagin administration insists that the proposed ordinance is intimately connected to the fate of Claiborne Avenue's tent city.
"The public-habitation ordinance is a critical tool that will greatly enhance our ability to address issues of homelessness in New Orleans .Â¤.Â¤. such as what is occurring near the intersection of Claiborne Avenue and Canal Street," Nagin said in a statement released during the committee meeting.
In February, Nagin announced a plan to move the camp to the mission. New Orleans would begin enforcing its "habitation laws," he told WWL-TV. "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," he said.
But in 1986, a federal judge found the city's public-habitation ordinance unconstitutional. It was stricken from municipal code six years ago.
As drafted, this ordinance is different, in several ways. The newly proposed law mandates that no one will be arrested for inhabiting public spaces if all local shelter beds are filled. Neither Faciane nor the city attorney's office lawyers could provide detail about ordinance-described "safe" zones: public places to sleep lawfully on public property.
Still, a long line of citizens spoke against the ordinance. Offering shelter beds in lieu of arrests won't work for those suffering from mental illness, who typically cannot tolerate the crowded, noisy conditions in a shelter, said Kathleen North, a social worker who works with the homeless. "To many mentally ill people, saying, 'You have to go to a shelter,' is like saying to someone in a wheelchair, 'You have to go up those stairs.' "