Displaced from one camp, city’s homeless set up another

A mosaic of cigarette butts, a silver 25-ounce High Gravity malt liquor can and a scurrying mouse were all that remained Saturday of the once-bustling homeless encampment under the Pontchartrain Expressway where up to 160 people had slept for months before being booted out by the city before dawn Thursday.

But just blocks away, a new camp had appeared.

Within hours of Thursday’s sweep, tents began popping up on a grassy median at Calliope and Camp streets, frustrating residents who asked whether the cleanup had put a dent in the city’s homeless population or simply relocated it.

“I know eventually they’re just going to make us leave, but this just gives us a little time,” said Scott, a 41-year-old man who lived under the elevated expressway for months before moving his tent and belongings a few blocks away.

Scott and three other homeless men perched in folding chairs Saturday while rain poured down. They said they were doing their best to self-police their new home and to keep it clean to avoid upsetting neighbors.

“We’re tired of being out here,” Scott said. “We don’t want to be out here anymore than they want us to be out here.”

Residents of the block said the migration of the homeless was creating an eyesore and a public hazard. They said they’ve tried to contact the city about the problem, to no avail.

“Clearly, if the garbage and human waste is a ‘public health concern’ on one side of St. Charles, it has to be considered a ‘public health concern’ on the other side of St. Charles,” Jeff Keiser, who lives near the new encampment, wrote in an email to city officials Thursday.

The city’s sweep, which officials said was necessary because of unsanitary conditions at the longtime encampment, covered only the area between South Claiborne Avenue and St. Charles Avenue.

Keiser said his pleas seem to have fallen on deaf ears and that he’s been frustrated and disappointed by “the lack of concern from everyone in the city.”

“I think these are the people who have chosen, for lack of a better term, to remain homeless,” he said about the camp’s inhabitants.

According to the city, 84 people entered shelters after the sweep. About 30 people appear to be living in the new camp. It’s unclear where the remainder of the former denizens of the encampment went.

David Bottner, executive director of the New Orleans Mission, said Saturday that even though the under-the-bridge population was troubling because of its cohesiveness and large numbers, it represented only a fraction of the homeless population of the city.

A March survey by UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that coordinates the city’s response to homelessness, found that on a typical spring night, 1,981 people were living on the streets and in abandoned buildings in Orleans and Jefferson parishes.

That figure is a huge decrease from after Hurricane Katrina, when the homeless population peaked at 11,619 in 2007.

Bottner said his organization does daily canvasses across the city in order to locate homeless individuals and try to get them into shelters.

He said the city hasn’t provided him with any details about what it intends to do with the area under the expressway on a permanent basis, but he’s hopeful the homeless encampment won’t be allowed to re-emerge.

Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor and the director of the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center, said he thinks such sweeps accomplish little in terms of solving the city’s homelessness problem but are mostly an effort to sanitize downtown prior to big events.

“We are not going to police our way out of homelessness,” he said about the crackdown, which occurred a day before the Saints’ first home game of 2014.

Quigley said that besides being ineffective, the cleanups also violate the constitutional rights of the homeless, who are often deprived of property without due process.

He said several homeless individuals complained about losing their property during Thursday’s crackdown.

Quigley described homelessness as an ancient problem that’s essentially unsolvable. The homeless are often shuffled from one area to another in an attempt to make them less visible, he said.

“There is an ongoing tension between neighbors and governments to move the homeless to another place. Then when they get to another place, those neighbors aren’t that thrilled about it either,” he said.

Whether the city will attempt to shut down the new camp and what it intends to do about the site of the previous encampment is unclear. A spokeswoman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu didn’t return a request for comment Saturday.

According to Quigley, the homeless have a right to congregate on public property, but that right doesn’t always extend to setting up camp.

“You can’t tell them they can’t be on public property, but you can tell them they can’t set up a home,” he said.