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.
Patrick Pugh and Clara Gomez outside their tent at a homeless
encampment under a highway overpass in New Orleans.
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
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
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
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."