New Orleans' notorious homeless camp cleared

This week the remaining residents were moved from the large homeless encampment underneath the Claiborne Avenue freeway overpass near Canal Street in New Orleans.

The once crowded and noisy tent city had become notorious, as an eyesore to some (in January New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called the scene "a mess"), as a health hazard to its residents and outreach workers, as a site of drug deals and theft, and as a stark symbol of the surmounting housing crisis in post-Katrina New Orleans.

The chaotic concrete settlement, where many student and church volunteers daily dropped off donations of food and clothing, saw a rotating group of more than 200 people, who according to the Times Picayune, lived in horrendous and unhealthy conditions "amid raggedy tents, scattered mattresses and rat-infested couches." Many had come from abandoned houses and other smaller camps across the city. In fact the overpass encampment ballooned at the start of the year after state and city officials closed down a similar camp across the street from City Hall.

As the Times Picayune reported:

One of the difficulties of emptying the Claiborne camp with any haste was the level of illness there. Most of its residents suffered from untreated mental illness and life-threatening medical conditions, according to detailed surveys conducted by [UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a coalition of advocates for the homeless]. That same survey found that 86 percent of those living at the camp were from the New Orleans area, a statistic that surprised many and flew in the face of Nagin's May tongue-in-cheek comment about solving the homeless problem with one-way bus tickets out of town.

Many of the frailest people interviewed under the overpass said they had lived with family before Hurricane Katrina, often a mother or sister. Many times, those family members were now dead or displaced, leaving them solo for the first time in their lives.

UNITY had spent the past couple of months gradually removing severely disabled people from the camp to shelters. The Associated Press reported that many from the overpass were taken to the city's Salvation Army facility, where they underwent checks for any physical or mental disabilities. They will be given a month at the facility, while they are provided housing vouchers that will buy them another three months of shelter in an apartment. Severely disabled people likely will be eligible for more long-term rental assistance and services.

Last month, Facing South reported that Congress passed an emergency war spending bill that included a provision providing $73 million for 3,000 subsidized housing vouchers to shelter physically and mentally disabled Hurricane Katrina victims. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu and Gulf Coast housing advocates had been pushing Congress for more than two years to provide additional relief to the Gulf Coast and worked tirelessly in last couple of months to secure this needed funding.

Despite the small victory on the housing voucher front, more than two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' lack of affordable housing remains one of the most pressing crises facing the recovery effort (rents have increased by about 40 percent since the 2005 disaster).

As Facing South has extensively reported, New Orleans is rapidly becoming a city with less and less space for its poorest. There are not enough beds for the homeless and there is a stark shortage of affordable housing (worsened by the fact that public housing complexes have been demolished without first providing enough replacement units.) The affordable housing crisis continues to contribute to New Orleans' growing homeless population, one that has doubled to an estimated 12,000 since the 2005 disaster. Many of the city's poor continue to live in substandard and overcrowded housing. Many of the city's homeless continue to live in shelters that are struggling daily to stay afloat financially.