NEW ORLEANS — Mayor C. Ray Nagin recently suggested a way to reduce this city’s post-Katrina homeless population: give them one-way bus tickets out of town.
Mr. Nagin later insisted the off-the-cuff proposal was just a joke. But he has portrayed the dozens of people camped in a tent city under a freeway overpass near Canal Street as recalcitrant drug and alcohol abusers who refuse shelter, give passers-by the finger and, worst of all, hail from somewhere else.
While many of the homeless do have addiction problems or mental illness, a survey by advocacy groups in February showed that 86 percent were from the New Orleans area. Sixty percent said they were homeless because of Hurricane Katrina, and about 30 percent said they had received rental assistance at one time from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Not far from the French Quarter, flanking Canal Street on Claiborne Avenue, they are living inside a long corridor formed not of walls and a roof but of the thick stench of human waste and sweat tinged with alcohol, crack and desperation.
The inhabitants are natives like Ronald Gardner, 54, an H.I.V.-positive man who said he had never before slept on the streets until Katrina. Or Ronald Berry, 57, who despite being a paranoid schizophrenic said he had lived on his own, in a rented house in the Lower Ninth Ward, for a dozen years before the storm. Both men receive disability checks of $637 a month, not nearly enough to cover post-hurricane rents.
“If I could just get a warm room,” Mr. Gardner said, sitting on the cot under which all his belongings are stored, “I could take it from there.”
Lurlene Newell, 54, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had paid her rent in Texas after the storm, but when she moved back to New Orleans, she could not find a place to live.
By one very rough estimate, the number of homeless people in New Orleans has doubled since Katrina struck in 2005. Homelessness has also become a much more visible problem — late last year, Unity of Greater New Orleans, a network of agencies that help the homeless, cleared an encampment of 300 people that had sprung up in Duncan Plaza, in full view of City Hall. About 280 of those people are now in apartments, but others have flocked to fill several blocks of Claiborne Avenue at Canal, near enough to the French Quarter to regularly encounter tourists.
Unity workers are hoping that Congress will include $76 million in the supplemental appropriation for Iraq to pay for vouchers that would give rent subsidies and services to 3,000 disabled homeless people.
On Thursday, the Senate passed a version of the bill that included the vouchers; the current House version, not yet approved, does not include them. Without the vouchers, said Martha J. Kegel, Unity’s executive director, even those people already in apartments will be in jeopardy. Their current vouchers, issued under a “rapid rehousing” program, expire at the end of 2008.
New Orleans had 2,800 beds for the homeless before the storm; now it has 2,000, Ms. Kegel said. Those beds are full, but even if they were not, many of the people living on Canal Street are not the sort who can stay in a group shelter. According to the survey, which was conducted before dawn one morning so that only those who actually sleep in the camp would be counted, 80 percent have at least one physical disability, 58 percent have had some kind of addiction, 40 percent are mentally ill, and 19 percent were “tri-morbid” — they had a disability, an addiction and mental illness.
For these difficult cases, permanent housing with supportive services, like counseling, has become a preferred method. But it takes time, patience, money and one thing New Orleans is short of: apartments. Many apartment developers who applied for tax credits after Hurricane Katrina were required to set aside 5 percent of their units for supportive housing, but because of high construction costs and other factors, far fewer units than expected are in the pipeline. And without the vouchers, even those units will not be affordable.
Unity has already moved 60 of the most vulnerable people from the camp to hotel rooms, paid for with a city health department grant, including a woman who is eight months pregnant and a paranoid schizophrenic who is diabetic and a double amputee. In the filth of the camp, the amputee’s stumps had become infected.
Outreach workers have found clients with cancer and colostomy bags, and one so disabled that he was unable to talk. On average, people have stayed in hotels for six weeks before Unity finds an apartment and cobbles together the necessary funds.
Mike Miller, the director of supportive housing placement at Unity, said the camp had become a public health hazard since the city removed some portable toilets in February.
“Two outreach workers have tested positive for tuberculosis,” Mr. Miller said. “There’s hepatitis C, there’s AIDS, there’s H.I.V. Everyone out there’s had an eye infection of some sort. I got one.”
On Thursday, Herman Moore Jr. was hanging out with a friend in the camp. Mr. Moore had lived in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer, then a FEMA-financed hotel room, but had not realized that he was eligible for further assistance after the 30-day hotel stay ended last fall. Tipped off by his brother, Mr. Moore had only recently rented a house under the emergency management agency’s program, but had yet to pay the deposit or turn on the utilities because he had no money.
“If I had a TV and some electricity, you all wouldn’t even see me,” he said.
Clara Gomez, 45, told an outreach worker that she had just discovered she was pregnant. Like about 14 percent of the homeless people under the bridge, Ms. Gomez had come to New Orleans to work as a builder, but acknowledged that she had problems with drug and alcohol abuse.
After getting fired from one job, she wound up under the bridge, where she met Patrick Pugh, 36, a New Orleanian who said he had been in drug rehabilitation, turning his life around, when the storm hit. Their IDs had been stolen, they said, making it difficult to get jobs or food stamps.
Seated on a mattress, Ms. Gomez shifted nervously, changing positions every few seconds, all the while keeping her arms anchored around Mr. Pugh’s neck.
“We’re ready,” she said. “We’re ready to get out of here.”