Cantrell's Deputy Chief of Staff, Liana Elliott and the Director of the Health Department, Dr. Jennifer Avegno, urge the City Council to vote against the encampment sweep ordinance. Credit: Michael Isaac Stein / The Lens

Despite vocal opposition from Mayor LaToya Cantrell, civil rights groups and a major local homeless services organization, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed an ordinance on Thursday that codifies some of the city Health Department’s current regulations on homeless encampment sweeps into law.

An administration official said Cantrell could veto the ordinance. But if all council members hold firm in their support, they would be able to override a mayoral veto.

The ACLU, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the Greater New Orleans Fair Action Housing Center, UNITY of Greater New Orleans, and two professors from the Loyola College of Law all sent letters to the council in opposition to the proposal.

“The ordinance contemplates that shelter, outreach services and social services are available for the homeless, and in fact requires signage advertising the availability of shelter and services, when in fact there is an acute shortage of shelter and services for the homeless,” said the letter from Unity, a nonprofit that provides services and outreach to the local homeless population. “The ordinance would increase the amount of time and attention spent on removing homeless people’s possessions and moving homeless people around, neither of which will reduce homelessness.”

Some of the concerns voiced in those letters were placated with amendments on Thursday, but others remained.

Disagreements between the council and the Cantrell administration had stalled a vote on the ordinance last month. Apparently, those disagreements weren’t resolved prior to Thursday’s meeting. Several members of the Cantrell administration spoke in opposition.

“We think we can do better for our people,” said Liana Elliott, Cantrell’s deputy chief of staff. “So we’re asking to tap the brakes on this until we can come up with a better solution.”

Councilman Joseph Giarrusso led the charge on this ordinance, and has expressed frustration over the Mayor’s opposition. His goal, he says, is simply to turn existing city Health Department policy into law, while adding some extra data collection requirements.

The current policies were written by the Cantrell administration and approved by the council last December.

“Our goal is transparency, accountability, and public health and safety,” Giarrusso said at Thursday’s meeting. “By making the existing regulations law, we are making them accessible to the public and ensuring the city is complying not merely with certain regulations but with the force of law.”

But on Thursday, Cantrell administration officials told the council that they now have doubts about the current Health Department policy. Elliott said that the ordinance had brought the encampment sweeps to the attention of many of the city’s local partners and national advocates, and that many were now raising concerns with the way the city is carrying them out.

“That’s caused us to reflect on ways we can better improve these processes,” Elliott said. “Why codify this into law when we clearly don’t have the support of the organizations on the ground doing this work?”

“You all came to us with something that you had studied, and you came to us with what you thought was the best policy, and we trusted you and moved forward with it,” Councilman Jason Williams said. “Now you’re all telling us that what you provided us five months ago was incorrect or misguided. And that’s problematic.”

Elliot’s plea wasn’t enough to stop the ordinance from passing. But while the members of the City Council approved the ordinance unanimously, they stopped well short of fully endorsing those policies.

In an interview last month, when The Lens asked Giarrusso whether the ordinance was an endorsement of the policy, he didn’t answer one way or the other. The Lens also asked his opinion about one common criticism of the sweeps — that they create more instability for the homeless.

“The city has been doing these sweeps long before this ordinance was introduced,” he said. “So it’s been policy for a long time. So obviously the city sees the utility in doing it from a health and safety perspective.”

These policies, then, could potentially become municipal law without the explicit endorsement of any council member or the Cantrell administration.

After the vote, Elliott said it is possible that Cantrell will veto the ordinance. However, it only takes five council votes to override a mayoral veto. And the ordinance was approved in a 7-0 vote. Elliott also said that the administration would not enforce parts of the ordinance if they infringed upon anyone’s constitutional or human rights.

What the ordinance does

The ordinance would require the city to inspect any public property where there is a reported encampment within two business days and prioritize the location for “remediation.” And it sets guidelines for how the city would conduct the “remediations,” or sweeps. It would require the city to give at least 24 hours notice before conducting a sweep and store personal items for at least 30 days.

It also creates the new designation of “routine remediation areas.” These areas would be subject to weekly cleaning and encampments would be permanently barred.

Many of those details are already written into the Health Department’s policies. But there are some differences, differences that the Cantrell administration vehemently opposes.

One of the major concerns raised last month was removed on Thursday. The administration, and several of the opposed nonprofits, took issue with the creation of “temporary emphasis areas.” These areas would have been temporarily blocked to any encampment. After installing proper signage, the city could remove and store unattended personal property without any further notice.

The city would be required to inspect those areas once a day. One location could only be a “temporary emphasis area” for 14 days, but the city could maintain ten of these areas at any one time.

An amendment by Giarrusso eliminated the temporary emphasis area provision prior to the final vote. Elliott gave credit to Giarrusso for the change and said it was a step in the right direction.

The original proposal required new data gathering during the sweeps, such as logs of all confiscated personal property and the number of children present during the sweep. Amendments added Thursday expanded those reporting requirements to include the number of pregnant women and “handicapped individuals.”

But while some of the new language added Thursday brought the council and the administration closer together, others set them further apart.

Elliott told The Lens last month that her main gripe with the ordinance is that she doesn’t believe these policies should be codified into city law at all.

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

She said that with an issue as complex and sensitive as encampment sweeps, the administration needs flexibility that city law will impede. And she said there is a major difference between giving the city the authority to do something and requiring them to do it under city law.

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

One of Giarrusso’s changes on Thursday adds another “shall” to the policy. The original ordinance said “the City is authorized to remove and store personal property that is not affixed with notice” in certain situations. After an amendment, the ordinance says “the City shall remove and store all unattended personal property.”

Giarrusso and other council members expressed frustration with how the Cantrell administration was characterizing the ordinance, and suggested that part of the reason for the stern opposition from nonprofits was because of misinformation it helped spread.

“There seem to be a number of misconceptions,” Giarrusso said. “To correct an inaccurate record, this ordinance does not criminalize homelessness nor does it violate anyone’s constitutional rights.”

During the meeting, Health Department director Dr. Jennifer Avegno admitted as much.

“We certainly understand that the council’s intent is not to criminalize,” she said.

“I’m glad you said that out loud,” Giarrusso said. “Because we’re frustrated about the fact that it seems to keep on being reverberated back to us.”

Action New Orleans, a political action committee that supports Cantrell’s political agenda, placed an advertisement on Facebook on Wednesday that featured a prior Lens article. It pulled out one of the article’s quotes from Elliott in which she said “policies of this sort lead to criminalization and dehumanization.”

“I think people are using red herrings and not really focusing on what’s happening.” Giarrusso told The Lens after the meeting. “It’s a smokescreen.”

He added that the council would be open to tweaking the law down the road.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...