Dispute between mayor, council delays homeless encampment sweep ordinance

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Michael Isaac Stein / The Lens

A Downtown Development District worker sweeps up trash at a homeless encampment under the Claiborne overpass.

Due to disagreements with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, the City Council is delaying a vote on an ordinance that would codify some of the city’s current regulations on homeless encampment sweeps into law. The vote was set for Thursday, but it’s being pushed back at least until the council’s next regular meeting in early May, according to Katie Baudouin*, spokeswoman for the ordinance’s sponsor, Councilman Joe Giarrusso.

The news came hours after a Cantrell administration official told The Lens in an interview that the Mayor was opposed to the ordinance as written. The official, Deputy Chief of Staff Liana Elliott, told The Lens that unlike the current regulations, which set encampment sweep guidelines for the city to use at its own discretion, the ordinance would force the city to conduct sweeps and remove people’s personal belongings when an encampment is reported.

“It’s the difference between ‘may’ and ‘shall,’ ” she told The Lens in an interview on Wednesday. “The Health Department would be required to do these things. And it all depends on the attitude that you read the ordinance with.”

Elliott had previously expressed concerns about the proposal in an April 5 email to Giarrusso.

“As written, this ordinance would force the City to separate people from their belongings when there is no public health purpose to do so,” Elliott wrote. “There is ample evidence that policies of this sort lead to criminalization and dehumanization of people facing housing insecurity.”

Giarrusso has repeatedly stated that he is not trying to criminalize or relocate the homeless population in emails, public hearings and an interview with The Lens.

“I am confounded now this could have possibly been misconstrued,” he wrote in a April 5 email. “At the risk of repeating myself continuously, this exercise is about better management to lead to better outcomes not criminalization or dehumanizing.”

Giarrusso’s ordinance would require the city to inspect any public property where there is a reported encampment and prioritize the location for “remediation.” It sets out guidelines for how the city carries those out. It would require giving 24 hours notice before conducting a sweep and store personal items for 30 days. After an initial sweep, the city would be able to declare a site a “temporary emphasis area,” where officials would be allowed to remove property without additional notification.

The ordinance would also create new data reporting requirements during each sweep, such as logs of all confiscated personal property, the number of children and pets present and descriptions and results of outreach efforts.

For Giarrusso, the central purpose of the ordinance is the data-gathering component. He wants  to create reporting standards so the city can better understand the problem and shape policy accordingly.

“Given that the city is spending so many resources on doing this already, what were asking for is: Give us the data you’re acquiring so we can make better decisions,” he said.

Giarrusso appeared surprised that there was such a strong dissent from the mayor’s office, given that most of the powers and procedures in the ordinance are already contained in city Health Department regulations.

“This is a codification of what already exists. That seems to keep getting lost in translation,” he told The Lens in an interview on Wednesday. “It’s taking existing policy and rules that have been promulgated through the mayor’s office and now codifying what the rules are, and tweaking those rules to make sure were getting better and more accurate information.”

The city has been conducting encampment sweeps for years. Last year, the Health Department adopted regulations — with council approval — that governed when the city could take action, how much notice it would have to give before conducting sweeps and how long the city would have to keep people’s belongings after removing them from encampment sites. Indeed, much of the language that appears in Giarrusso’s bill appears to be based on those rules.

But officials in Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s administration see the ordinance as more than just a tweak to those regulations.

“Some of these things seem small but they’re actually massive in terms of how it affects the actual implementation,” Elliott told The Lens. “There’s a lot of room to screw things up.”

Elliott said that regulations, rather than municipal laws, give the administration more leeway to deal with the nuanced and shifting issue of homelessness.

“The problem is there are some things you don’t codify,” said Elliott. “There are some things that are appropriate for regulations and there are some things that are appropriate for law.”

She is also worried about giving the city the authority to create “temporary emphasis areas.” These areas would be temporarily blocked off to any encampment and allow the city to remove and store personal property without further notice after it installs the proper signage. The city would have to inspect the area at least once a day. The designation would only last 14 days, but the city could maintain ten of these areas at any one time.

The ordinance also calls for so-called “routine remediation areas,” areas subject to weekly cleaning where encampments would be permanently barred, though that provision mirrors language in current departmental regulations.

Those parts of the proposal raised legal concerns for Loyola Law Professors Bill Quigley and Davida Finger, who wrote a letter to the council opposing the ordinance earlier this month.

“The Routine Remediation areas and Temporary Emphasis Area are designations that are nothing more than pretext to prevent homeless people from occupying any area of the City,” the letter said. “As such, these designations are both vague and overbroad in violation of U.S. Constitutional standards.”

Elliott said the administration is likewise concerned about the constitutionality of the law, and the possibility that the enforcement it allows could open the city up to legal challenges.

“This has much further implications, the reasons being that ordinances outlast administrations,” she said. “If you put this into law and someone comes into office that feels differently about homelessness, this ordinance could give them the power to unconstitutionally move people and their things against their will.”

She added that the sweeps are supposed to be a temporary measure until the city builds enough housing to keep every homeless person off the streets.

“We are kind of in a holding pattern until we have more beds to offer these folks,” she said.

The city shouldn’t be codifying a temporary measure, she argued, and the laws could create unintentional consequences down the road.

“This can create a tool for one or two people that have been in a council member’s ear who are upset about people living in a specific spot,” she said. “The context of this is not that we want to find a safe, humane place for people to live. It’s ‘I don’t want that person there. Move them.’ This is the attitude and context that you need to understand and why we’re so vehemently opposed to this.”

Baudouin said that the administration and council would come together in the coming weeks to try to find common ground and amend the ordinance as needed.

*Correction: As originally published, this article incorrectly attributed several quotes and pieces of information to Katie Hunter-Lowrey. The correct source was Giarrusso staff member Katie Baudouin. (April 25, 2019)

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