Officials clear out homeless from area

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Donald Flemming is homeless and had been living under the Pontchartrain Expressway before authorities cleared out the encampment  Friday. He sought refuge at the Harry Tompson Center on Monday.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Donald Flemming is homeless and had been living under the Pontchartrain Expressway before authorities cleared out the encampment Friday. He sought refuge at the Harry Tompson Center on Monday.

A homeless encampment under the Pontchartrain Expressway that had grown to dozens in recent months was cleared out by the city Friday, as the Landrieu administration began acting to move the homeless population into shelters and other housing.

The relocation from the area near Calliope and Baronne streets is part of the city’s 10-year plan to reduce a homeless population estimated to be at 4,900 people, according to a 2011 report from the New Orleans Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The plan’s goal, according to the report, is to get people into permanent housing and to find them employment.

About 55 people were removed from the underpass early Friday after undergoing on-site health screenings and consultations from the city’s health department. A statement from City Hall said that they will be linked with housing, mental and physical health services, and job training opportunities.

UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a homelessness collaborative, had worked during recent weeks to identify the most vulnerable people — those with mental or physical illness — to try to get them any help they needed.

The city relocated some occupants to facilities run by various agencies, including the VA, New Orleans Mission, Ozanam Inn, Exodous House, Bethel Colony Ministries, UNITY of Greater New Orleans, Volunteers of America and the Salvation Army.

“This effort was an important collaboration between multiple service partners in the best interests of our citizens,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “By connecting these individuals in need with vital services, we are putting them back on the path to permanent housing status. Ultimately, our goal is to make sure that all New Orleanians have a place they can call home and that our city is clean and safe.”

Cleanliness and safety also were a part of the reason for clearing out the underpass, said Dr. Karen DeSalvo, the city’s health commissioner.

“We have been focused on improving the quality of life for all New Orleanians across the board, particularly for the most vulnerable in our community,” DeSalvo said, adding that the efforts “will reduce the risk of harm and health hazards that exist for this population.”

While the city’s Office of Neighborhood Services, which oversees homeless policy, communicated with all homeless individuals under the overpass leading up to the eviction, some said there appeared to be a miscommunication.

“They just told us we had to move our stuff, not that we had to move,” said Donald Fleming, 58, who lived under the overpass.

While he and other occupants said the city told them the day was coming, the action happened too fast and prevented some people from making sure they had necessities, such as medicine, Fleming said.

“Some guy was taking insulin, and they wouldn’t let him get his stuff,” Fleming said, adding that his only property after Friday was the clothes on his back and a baseball cap on his head. “I’m already homeless, why throw my stuff away?”

The sanitation department threw away all “mattresses, chairs and other items,” according to a news release, and sent a mechanical street sweeper to the area after the items were thrown away to sanitize the area.

The city will build a fence around the area to prevent future encampments from popping up at the location, which the New Orleans Police Department’s Homeless Assistance Unit will monitor.