Tents are thrown away on Thursday morning during the city's homeless encampment sweeps. Credit: Marlana Botnick

As Tropical Storm Barry bears down on Louisiana, city of New Orleans officials are working to manage one of the city’s most vulnerable populations: unsheltered homeless people. The plan is to expand the capacity of the network of homeless shelters to accommodate anyone who needs room, then try to urge as many people inside as possible. 

The plan also involved a round of homeless encampment sweeps on Thursday morning, which included the administration’s policy of throwing out all unattended tents. 

According to Sarah Babcock, the New Orleans Health Department’s healthy population and planning manager, there are roughly 400 more homeless people in the city than there are beds in homeless shelters. 

“We’ve been in contact with all of the homeless shelters, and just as they do in any disaster like a storm or a freeze night, they have the capacity to take in extra people,” said Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno. “They have committed to do that.”

The extra beds will be available starting on Friday at noon, she added. And the city will also be providing transportation for those who need it. 

“We should be able to accommodate everyone in the existing shelters,” said Babcock. “If for some reason we can’t do that, the city is prepared to open additional sites.”

On Thursday morning, there were already people lining up at the city’s new low-barrier shelter on Gravier Street. Its capacity is normally 100 people, but it is opening its doors to additional 30 for the storm, said Liam Fitzgerald, an assistant at the shelter.  

The New Orleans Mission on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard was making its own preparations on Thursday, piling sandbags around the doors. Assistant Director Rob Ledet said that while the shelter usually houses 225 people, it could take in as many as 400 for the storm. The Mission’s strict intake times will also be loosened. 

“In an emergency protocol, we basically just keep the doors open,” he said. “Anybody who needs some shelter can come in.”

‘We just got wiped out’

But just outside of the New Orleans Mission, there were some homeless residents that weren’t too happy with the city’s approach to encampment sweeps.  

“We just got wiped out,” one woman, who lives under the Pontchartrain Expressway overpass, told The Lens. “They took our tent and everything.”

The woman asked to remain anonymous, saying that some of her family didn’t know about her current situation. Her husband, who said he worked as a dishwasher in a nearby restaurant, also asked to remain anonymous because he didn’t want his employer to find out that he is homeless.  

As part of its preparations, the city conducted sweeps all along Claiborne and Calliope streets, Babcock said. During the sweeps, city employees removed debris that could be thrown by strong winds while homeless outreach workers spread the word about the extra capacity at the shelters. 

But like any encampment sweep, city officials also took “unclaimed” property, including tents. Some of the items confiscated during sweeps are stored by the city until their owners can come get them. However, at a City Council Quality of Life Committee meeting in March, the city’s Director of Housing Tyra Johnson Brown told city council members that only four people had come to retrieve their belongings over the last five years. 

Some large items, such as tents and mattresses, aren’t stored and are simply thrown away, Avegno told The Lens in May. 

“I wasn’t even here for it,” the woman who said her property was removed told The Lens. “I was at a meal. All I know is when I came back my home was gone. I lost my tent, my bed, my blankets, everything. Now we got a tropical storm coming.”

Normally, the city is required to give at least 24 hours advance notice of the sweeps. The city had posted signs in the area announcing sweeps would occur on Wednesday, Babcock said and several people in the area confirmed. But because of Wednesday’s flooding, they were postponed until Thursday. Babcock said that the city tried to give as much oral notice as possible. 

“They put up a sign saying they were going to come yesterday, but they never came,” said the woman. “Then they didn’t tell us they were gonna come today and they came and got us anyway. Just about everyone on this block lost their homes.”

She said that she didn’t want to go into the shelters because she wouldn’t be able to bring all of her belongings. If she left them, they’d be taken, she said. 

“We work too hard out here to have anything,” she said. “And if you leave it out here it’s gone. You can’t just leave your stuff like that. I guess if it got so bad it came to be life or death you would. But otherwise, I’m not gonna leave that behind.”

Council recently passed new homeless encampment ordinance

Babcock stressed that the city was offering storage services.

“We will be able to store some belongings, not huge stuff, but we’ll be able to store some belongings if that is a hindrance to going into the shelters,” she said. “And then [the Department of] Sanitation will be removing debris and things that could potentially fly around in gusts of wind.”

Health Department officials have argued that tents create hazards for sexual assault, drug use, and the spread of disease. 

In May, over objections from the Cantrell administration, the City Council passed an ordinance that took many of the health department’s regulations on the encampment sweeps and codified them into law. The new section of the city code specifies that the city must provide 24 hours notice of a sweep in the area in which it will occur. 

But there is an emergency powers provision in the law that allows the department to remediate encampments without warning when they are “deemed obstructions or immediate hazards by the department.”

City officials say that people should not try to ride the storm out in a tent, and should seek safety at a shelter.

“The goal is to get as many people into shelters as possible,” Babcock said.

Still, the woman living under the overpass said she made her decision, and wished she still had a tent to provide at least some protection. 

“I think it’s cruel and intentional to come out here and steal our tent like that,” she said. 

The Lens asked how she thought the city could better serve her and help during the storm.

“Give me my damn tent back,” she said. “Just leave us alone. We’re not bothering nobody. My life is hard enough. Stop making it harder.” 

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...