Owen Courreges: Do we have a homelessness strategy, or just a Super Bowl punt?

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(Cartoon by Owen Courreges for UptownMessenger.com)

Owen Courreges

The Pontchartrain Expressway homeless encampment is no more.  This past Friday morning, police swept the remaining homeless people from the encampment in the underpass that separates the Central Business District from Uptown New Orleans.  The number of persons removed was 55 persons by the city’s count, but closer to 100 according to the New Orleans Mission, which adjoins the expressway.  By either count, it was a significant encampment.

Ironically, the night before Covenant House, a local homeless shelter, held a “Sleep Out” event in which 40 local leaders slept on the sidewalks adjoining the shelter in a symbolic show of sympathy with the plight of the homeless.

The “sleepers” were a who’s-who of the New Orleans elite.  Their ranks included Sheriff Marlin Gusman, State Rep. Walt Leger III, Whitney Bank President Joseph Exnicios, Juvenile Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier, Civil District Court Judge Paula Brown,  4th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Madeleine Landrieu and U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood Duval.

Now, these two events may seem incongruous at first blush, but really they were not (even if the timing was intentional).  I gripe at a lot of things the city does, but in this case the sweep was announced in advance and the city worked to increase the number of homeless beds to accommodate those being forced out of the Pontchartrain Expressway encampment.

For example, the city worked with the New Orleans Mission to increase its number of beds from 165 to 252, and the city met with the heads of other shelters this past Monday to coordinate the influx of homeless persons being ordered out.

Moreover, I wholeheartedly agree with the city that any longstanding homeless encampment is not only a misuse of public lands, but a potential health hazard.  Without plumbing facilities, what was basically a concrete parking lot was presumably awash in human waste.  Leaving the homeless to that squalor is not an act of mercy, but one of callous indifference.

However, the timing of all of this, really, really bothers me.

First, you have the timing of the “Sleep Out” being the night before the “sweep out” of a homeless encampment.  Superficially, it looks like somebody trying to crib off of good press for public officials sympathizing with the homeless.

Secondly, there’s the issue of Super Bowl XLVII, to be held on February 3, 2013 in New Orleans, less than three months from now.  Curiously, the expressway encampment had been there for several months, and yet just now that the Super Bowl looms, the city decided to get rid of it.  Astute readers will also recall that my previous column concerned a proposed ordinance to provide for “closing times” for Jackson Square at night, ostensibly intended to remove the homeless who sleep there in advance of Super Bowl crowds .  Call me crazy, but there seems to be a theme here.

My concern really isn’t over the idea that the homeless aren’t able to create potentially unsanitary encampments by occupying public land.  I don’t want that.  Rather, my concern (aside from the use of unconstitutional laws like the Jackson Square ordinance) is that the City is just whitewashing the problem and doesn’t intend to make any long-term commitment to the homeless problem in this city.  As a matter of public policy, I want the city to do more than look pretty for the Super Bowl.

Earlier this year, a study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found New Orleans has a rate of homelessness that is three times the national average and the second highest in the nation.  Alas, we usually don’t notice the severity of the problem because the homeless largely retreat to our massive surplus of abandoned and blighted housing.  The problem is still there behind the moldy walls and underneath the leaking ceilings.  Regrettably, it seems like we only want to deal with it when it stands starkly in plain view, as with the Pontchartrain Expressway encampment.

I’m not saying that there are easy or cheap solutions, or that we need to be spending more scarce funds on those who often fail to help themselves.  However, assistance to the homeless should be earnest.  It should not be a pretext for creating a false image for the Super Bowl.  Any effort we give now should be a sustained endeavor that reflects our collective dedication, not our vanity.

Time will tell if that is the case.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

15 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: Do we have a homelessness strategy, or just a Super Bowl punt?

  1. What do you mean “we”? It should not be the responsibility of the city to solve the problems of these itnierant bums and crazies. By definition, the city is not their home, and I doubt that many ever called New Orleans home. It certainly isn’t a problem to be solved by up-towners. We, the people who have homes in New Orleans, do have a problem, namely how to discourage these people from defouling our neighborhoods. Some other and larger entities need to solve the problems of the homeless.

    • Terrance,

      Well, just as a practical matter vagrancy is the city’s problem because we are the ones who absorb the impacts. I agree that some of these issues require state and/or federal intervention, like mental health services to keep those with severe mental illness institutionalized and off the streets, but the over-arching issue of how to deal with a large homeless population is always going to rest with the city. Nobody is going to swoop in and solve the problem for us.

      This is not to say that state and federal grants for homeless services can’t help with the problem, or that some of it won’t boil down to proper enforcement of existing criminal laws. However, if we really want to keep the homeless from defouling our neighborhoods, we need to make sure we have enough shelters and beds in the long term — not just for the duration of the Super Bowl.

      • “always going to rest with city” is the contention I disagree with. These vagrants don’t come here for the historic sites. There is a reason they don’t congregate in Jefferson or even eastern New Orleans. They come here because of the services available to them, especially the free food at the missions. The city needs to deveop a strategy to discourage these people from coming here in the first place.

        • Terrance,

          I didn’t think we had more services for the homeless than surrounding parishes. In any case, I would argue that our services at least make a good attempt to cycle people out of homelessness. The city has been claiming a major reduction in homelessness after announcing a 10 year plan to combat it (see Christy’s comments below and my responses). That’s the kind of thing we’d all like to see.

          • Well now you know. I can see we shall never agree on this problem, but let me suggest to you that the term “homeless” is misleading as most of the people under the expressway had no interest in anything approaching normal home life. The image of some woman and her children recently evicted and now on the street does not represent reality. I think we have relatively successful social services for those few cases.

          • Terrance,

            I actually agree that many homeless do have no interest in living anything other than the lifestyle they are living. However, many others suffer from mental illness or substance abuse problems. I think we definitely do better with the former, and although we do have some good social services already, there’s something good to be said for keeping an adequate number of homeless beds and maintaining or expanding programs to reintegrate the homeless into society as much as possible. Then again, funds are scarce and we’re a city that can’t even adequately pave its streets. It’s definitely a tricky issue.

  2. The Homeless Problem is not only a concern for New Orleans, but it is a major problem within other cities in the US. All of the many groups around the City need to come together and decide how to address this problem as a group so services are not duplicated and more funds can be allocated to support the efforts. This ‘white wash’ is not going away, even with the Super Bowl looming.

  3. As a photographer who shoots often in the Quarter, I see an ever growing population of young people panhandling on the streets. In essence, they have come here from all over the country to live a homeless life here. I cannot quite figure this group out, but they are not like the usual New Orleans homeless. I agree with you, Owen, that a definite tactic is needed. However, a lot of these folks have told me they choose to live this homeless life. What do you do then? (And New Orleans is not alone in this matter.)

    • Kathleen,

      With those who choose the homeless life, I’d say mental illness is often the culprit (it’s not the most rational choice). When there is no mental illness involved, there’s little to be done except mitigate their impact on the rest of society. We just have to make sure that those “cures” aren’t worse than the disease. I’m very glad that the old vagrancy laws are gone because they ultimately started being used as a pretext to violate constitutional rights.

    • Christy,

      Good catch there. I haven’t really seen this being implemented, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Like all announced plans, this kind of thing will depend on whether it’s more about PR or results. As I said, I’m hoping that the city is focusing on the latter. The closure of the homeless encampment under the expressway was well-executed, but I just still worry that this is all about the Super Bowl.

  4. The City owes the vagrants-by-choice absolutely nothing, and it should not be yet another burden on the taxpayers here to take care of them.

    • That reminds me of First Blood: “Vagrancy wasn’t it? That’s gonna look real good on his grave stone in Arlington: Here lies John Rambo, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, survivor of countless incursions behind enemy lines. Killed for vagrancy in Jerkwater, USA.”

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