Plan starts with clearing bridge
New Orleans — On any given day, homeless people by the dozens can be found under the Pontchartrain Expressway on the border of the Central Business District and Central City. That encampment might soon meet its end, though, as the city works to implement a 10-year plan to end homelessness.
Stacy Koch, director of neighborhood services, facilities and homeless policy for the New Orleans Interagency Council on Homelessness, told a City Council committee on Monday that the city is looking for ways to move out from under the expressway those people who call it home.
Meanwhile, she added, the city is working with the VA to reuse part of the agency’s old hospital as a 24-hour homeless resource center to help those who have neither a home nor a job.
The collection of people who gather under the bridge is anecdotal evidence of the challenge the city faces, according to Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit collaborative. “That’s just the tip of the homelessness iceberg,” she said.
According to a 2011 report from Koch’s office, nearly 6,500 people live on the streets of New Orleans. That number has already dipped 27 percent to about 4,900 people during the first year of the 10-year homelessness reduction plan, Kegel said during an interview.
The number of those homeless in the city remains high since the cost of rent post-Hurricane Katrina shot up about 40 percent, while wages stayed stagnant, Kegel said. Adding to the problem is the fact that so many familial networks were chopped up during the storm. Someone who used to sleep on a relative’s sofa might not have that option anymore.
“They just don’t have the kind of community support we used to have,” Kegel said.
While the number of homeless in the city is dropping, some neighbors who live near the encampment under the expressway hope that change comes sooner, rather than later.
They told the City Council’s Housing and Human Needs Committee that they often deal with quality of life issues, such as litter from food drop-offs and people defecating and urinating in their neighborhoods or on their doorsteps.
Cassandra Sharpe has lived nearby on Julia Street for nearly two decades and said the CBD is suffering a “black eye” because of the number of homeless people living under the bridge. “We can’t live, work and try to thrive in an environment like this,” she said.
Colleen Lusighan, who lives nearby on Baronne Street and worked on the city’s homelessness reduction plan, said it appears to her that the homeless problem has only gotten worse. Additionally, police don’t seem able to respond to many of the issues she and her husband face, unless it’s a criminal act, such as her shed being burglarized, which she said happened just before Monday’s committee meeting.
“It’s just hard to live around there, and we’ve made a commitment to live there,” Lusighan said. “I feel disheartened.”
City Council President Stacy Head said officials need to look at legal and moral obligations but ultimately need to ensure the safety of residents and neighbors.
Koch said the issues New Orleans faces are not unique to the city and that her office is studying best practices to try to solve the problem.
“We’re all taking a look at ways we can make it safer and make it less comfortable to camp in that area,” she said.
Kegel said UNITY is already making a dent in the population under the expressway. Seven people are working night and day to find the most vulnerable people — those with physical or mental illnesses — and to get them the help they need. The work won’t stop, she said.
“There is literally no one whose homelessness cannot be solved,” Kegel said.