By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

Six weeks after eight young people were killed by a fire in the fallow 9th Ward warehouse where they were living, the city has  not taken new substantive action to reduce vagrancy or shut down unsafe squats.

“We just don’t have the manpower,” the city’s newly appointed Director of Neighborhood Services and Facilities Stacy Horn-Koch said in an interview Thursday.

Horn-Koch’s admission is a reminder of the steep challenge facing Mayor Mitch Landrieu as he attempts to make good on a promise to get people out of risky and illegal living situations. On the morning after the fatal blaze, Landrieu gathered with other city officials to tell reporters that his administration would step up vagrancy enforcement efforts. He said the city would begin “removing people living in abandoned buildings that aren’t suited for occupancy,” and encouraging them to go to one of the city’s homeless shelters, The Times-Picayune reported.

But more than a month later, Landrieu’s efforts have been limited to hiring Horn-Koch to coordinate the city’s homeless services, continuing existing efforts and publicly encouraging people to report houses being illegally occupied.

Homeless outreach workers and shelter employees say they have seen no increased enforcement, and no decrease in the number of homeless people living in abandoned buildings.

“Even right around the fire, squats are just as utilized,” said Mike Miller, the abandoned-building outreach director for Unity of Greater New Orleans. As the umbrella organization that coordinates the city’s homeless service programs and the only group providing direct assistance to people living in abandoned buildings, Unity receives a large share of the federal grant money the city receives to fight homelessness. Even so, Miller says he typically speaks to city officials only in crisis situations.

“After the fire, we were going to have a meeting but that never really happened,” he said.

At Covenant House too, patterns remain the same with no evidence of stepped-up efforts to bring more people to the shelter, said Eric Johnson, a client-care facilitator.

“We have the same amount of people coming in and out, and still none of the squatters,” he said.

A short walk from the now-cleared site of the 1901 St. Ferdinand St. warehouse fire, someone has carefully lined up a pair of Converse sneakers next to a bedroll. A roll of Right Guard deodorant lay on the ground next to it. The makeshift bedroom has been set up under the rotting back awning of an abandoned shotgun double. The empty, untended house has been a popular stopping point for homeless people for years, Miller said.

Six weeks after a warehouse caught on fire and killed eight people living illegally there, squatters remain undeterred in the Upper 9th Ward, and across the city. Photo by Ariella Cohen

In the week before a reporter’s recent Friday visit, someone had boarded up the house’s front door, leaving only the  mold- and fire-damaged back open.  Miller suspects that its owner heard news of the fire and secured the front door.

“Now whoever was living in there is living outside,” he said. Though living outside is clearly unsafe, Miller said that often living inside abandoned, blighted houses is more dangerous because of the degree of isolation involved. “Things happen in these houses that don’t necessarily happen in a doorway.”

Riding across town with Miller, signs of such beds of last resort can be found everywhere the city is battling blight. In Central City, a bedroll that has been placed against a wall in an unlocked house located a half a block from a public park.  Inside an abandoned Claiborne Avenue building, someone has set up camp on a debris-strewn concrete floor. Ashes from a recent fire cover a corner.  Nearby, another squatter has set up a neat bedroll on the carpeted floor of a vacant two-story home.

Police do not evict squatters unless an owner requests they do so. If no such request is made, squatters are encouraged to go to a shelter. Photo by Ariella Cohen

The city’s policy is to let people remain in an abandoned building unless the owner asks the city to remove a squatter or the person is in clear danger, Horn-Koch said. Typically, after a complaint about illegal occupants comes into the city, the address is passed onto the police department’s quality-of-life division and officers are sent out to offer transportation to shelters.

If they choose to remain where they are they will not be arrested or moved by force, Horn-Koch said.

“In New Orleans, the police are far kinder to homeless people than they are in many other places,” she added. “Unless the owner asks the police to remove them, there is no reason to remove them.”

And in many cases, squatters do not want to go to a shelter and reject offers of help from police or aid providers who stumble upon them. It is especially difficult to gain the trust of those who struggle with mental illness.

“The effort has always been there on the part of Unity and other folks who are out there every day,” said Horn-Koch.

The city does not maintain a comprehensive set of records of reported addresses and the outcome of the reports, mayoral  spokesman  Ryan Berni said.

Horn-Koch said her first task will be to get a solid understanding of the populations that are in greatest need, so that the city can better serve them.

“A lot of people ask what the plan is,” Horn-Koch said. “If I already knew, though, you shouldn’t want me. You have to see what you are dealing with before you make a plan to deal with it.”

She said she hoped to have a plan within “the next few months,” after the city finishes a survey intended to provide an accurate picture of who is on the streets.

But that information will only be useful only if the city uses it to develop more coordinated program of action, Miller said.

“Right now it feels like the city wants us to solve this problem for them,” Miller said. “But no one entity can solve this problem alone.