City workers remove a homeless man's tent during a weekly encampment sweep. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The sun had just made its first sliver of appearance at 7 a.m. Tuesday, but the people staying under the I-10 overpass at the corner of Claiborne Avenue and Canal Street had already been up for hours. Several dozen people packed up what belongings they had and carried them out of the encampment and across the street in shopping carts, crates or bundled in their arms. 

Most lined up against the vacant Canal Street Hotel, guarding neatly piled stacks containing blankets, clothes, tents and suitcases.

A sign had been posted the day before at this corner, one of the largest homeless encampments in the city, informing its residents that they had 24 hours to remove all tents, tarps, mattresses, furniture and any “semi-permanent structure.” Everything that remained would be taken by the city sometime between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., the sign explained. 

Both city officials and the vast majority of homeless residents who spoke to The Lens in the past two weeks believe these weekly encampment sweeps, or cleanups, are vital for staving off diseases and rats, as well as making the area more habitable for those with no where else to go. 

But among homeless residents who spoke to The Lens, there are divergent views about whether the true motivation behind the sweeps is to help them or push them out, or whether the city even has a comprehensive understanding and approach toward the encampments.

“If the city wants the homeless out, why aren’t they providing someplace for us to go?” asked Chris, who has been staying at this corner for more than a year. He asked The Lens to omit his last name because there were people, including potential employers, who didn’t know he was homeless.

“They’ve got vacant buildings all over the city,” he said, motioning to the shuttered hotel he was leaning against. “They’ve been sitting there for years and years and years. Construction is going up everywhere for high-rise apartments. And yet here we are, no place to go.”

The city has conducted sweeps for years, but the rules governing them were only written into municipal law last year. The City Council’s decision to formalize those rules in law was met by staunch opposition from both Mayor LaToya Cantrell and several homeless and civil rights organizations, who worried the laws would make it easier to disperse the encampments and take people’s belongings. 

The law also added new data gathering and reporting requirements when the city conducts a sweep, including the results of service outreach efforts. In practice, the information coming from those reports is limited, and doesn’t include any information about outreach or services provided, though the law requires that. 

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the sweeps is the city’s policy of confiscating tents at the encampments. Several people told The Lens that even if they’ve moved their belongings across the street, the city will still take tents if they see them. Cantrell’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.

On Tuesday, The Lens observed city workers dispose of several personal items, including blankets, chairs, a walker and at least one tent. According to the ordinance, the city can simply throw out items deemed to be garbage or hazardous as well as any illegal items. But items defined as personal property, including tents and medical equipment, must be stored — rather than thrown out — by the city for at least 30 days. 

Last year, the city’s Director of Housing Tyra Johnson Brown told the City Council that only four people had come to retrieve their belongings over the last five years. And while the monthly reports to the council are supposed to include a log of all confiscated personal property, all of the reports published by City Council appear to indicate that no personal property is actually being stored. 

“If you haven’t taken down your stuff they’ll take everything,” Chris said. “I wasn’t here one day when they came and I wasn’t expecting them. When I came back and my tent, my clothes, hygiene stuff, blankets, everything was gone.”

The city is only required to provide notice of the sweeps one day in advance. And some said that the uncertainty about when they will occur adds more instability to their lives, making it difficult to set up appointments with doctors or homeless service providers. 

Others complained that while the city sprayed down the concrete where they set up their tents, it neglected the areas that people use as bathrooms. 

“All that feces will still be over there,” Chris said as he waited for the city’s cleaning crew to arrive. (Human waste was indeed still visible near the encampment after Tuesday’s sweep.) “It’s pretty disgusting. They don’t spray the wall where people piss and everything.”

The Unsheltered Homeless

In July, an official from the Department of Health told The Lens that there were 400 more homeless people in New Orleans than there were beds in homeless shelters. According to a November report from Unity of Greater New Orleans, a major local homeless services provider, there are 430 “unsheltered homeless” in New Orleans, many of whom reside in encampments under the I-10 or Pontchartrain Expressway overpasses. 

That population is in the most “dire, life-threatening living situation,” according to the report. It’s also the population directly impacted by the encampment sweeps. And it is the segment of the homeless population for which the city has the most ambiguous approach.

Unity is the designated “continuum of care agency” in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes for the  federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, meaning the nonprofit is responsible for applying for federal funding and organizing homeless services in the region. The organization’s primary focus is finding housing for the city’s homeless residents, not improving the quality of life at outdoor encampments. 

“To focus on any kind of temporary dwellings is to miss the point that homeless folks need permanent housing,” Joe Hereen-Mueller, a Unity employee, told The Lens. “Our concern is getting permanent housing solutions to end the homelessness of people already on the street and ending the housing affordability crisis to keep more people from becoming homeless.”

The city could face legal challenges for simply dispersing the encampments without offering another type of shelter. Federal courts, including the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last year in the western U.S., have ruled that it is unconstitutional to ban homeless people from public property when the government has no alternatives to offer. 

Officials from Cantrell’s administration as well as the New Orleans City Council have been clear that they want to avoid any constitutional challenge and that encampment sweeps are not an attempt to displace people.

“If there aren’t enough beds and services for homeless people, you can’t remove them or push them someplace else,” Councilman Joe Giarrusso told The Lens in an interview last year. “And honestly that’s one of the harder conversations you have to have with constituents who just say, ‘I don’t like the fact that somebody’s on Claiborne or Calliope or under the overpass.’ “

At the same time, however, the city has stopped well short of fully endorsing the continued existence of the camps.

For example, while the city does weekly sweeps to keep the areas clean, it has not done what many homeless say is more important for maintaining a sanitary living area: providing portable toilets and garbage cans to clean up after themselves.

“If you want us to be sanitary, bring us stuff to keep clean,” Chris said. “At least a porta-potty or those little camping pots. Something, give us something. Because we have people going anywhere and everywhere, and that is unnecessary.”

‘This has much further implications’

At 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, a procession of nine vehicles and roughly 20 city employees arrived at the corner of Claiborne and Canal, led by the blaring sirens of two undercover police sedans. When the cleaning began, one man was still sleeping in his tent under the overpass. 

Sanitation workers woke him up and threw his tent in one of the garbage trucks.

The workers quickly combed through the underpass, picking up garbage, tents, luggage, a walker and an array of furniture, throwing them in the back of two garbage trucks. Workers then sprayed down the area with a solution that gave off a chemical odor. In 45 minutes, the workers were gone and headed to the next encampment. Almost immediately, the encampment’s residents began the process of transporting their belongings back under the overpass.

Officials from the Department of Health aren’t authorized to talk to the media without permission from Cantrell’s communication team. The mayor’s communication team did not respond to requests for comment.

The city has done these sweeps for years. An ordinance from 2014, introduced by then-Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell at the request of then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu, banned all tents, mattresses and other obstructions from public right-of-ways. 

However, it was only last year that the City Council voted to formalize the rules governing the sweeps into local law. Before that, the rules were only housed in Health Department regulations, which are easier to change. 

Although last year’s ordinance was drafted based on regulations used by Cantrell’s Health Department, the administration came out aggressively against codifying those regulations into law, even threatening to veto the measure. And there was an outpouring of opposition that flowed from both local and national homeless and civil rights groups. 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,” the letter from Unity said. “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.”

Nonetheless, the City Council unanimously approved the ordinance in May

Council members were frustrated by the Mayor’s condemnation of the ordinance. Aside from new data gathering and reporting requirements, the rules closely mirrored existing Health Department regulations. It was important, the council argued, that the Health Department rules be memorialized in law to create a higher level of accountability. 

Cantrell’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Liana Elliot, told The Lens last year that the objections from nonprofits had made the administration rethink those rules. And she argued that the nuanced and delicate nature of encampment sweeps made it more appropriate to house the rules in department regulations.

“This has much further implications, the reasons being that ordinances outlast administrations,” she told The Lens in April. “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.”

No reporting on outreach

The council was most interested in the section of the ordinance that created new reporting requirements. The ordinance forces the city to collect data during the sweeps, such as the number of children present and the result of any service outreach effort, and send monthly reports to the council.

“Given that the city is spending so many resources on doing this already, what we’re asking for is: give us the data you’re acquiring so we can make better decisions,” Giarrusso said in an interview last year. “We can constantly ensure that people are getting the help they needed, that they’re being case managed correctly.” 

The information on the reports is fairly basic. The forms show where the sweeps occurred and when and how many people were there. The data does give some indication about the cost of the sweeps. They require somewhere between 15 and 20 employees and take four to five hours to complete. A definitive price tag, however, is still unknown.

“It adds up pretty quickly,” Health Department Director Jennifer Avegno said at a March City Council meeting. “My guess would be in the thousands.”

But for information on service outreach to the homeless, each report just says “information to be provided by Unity.”

Hereen-Mueller told The Lens that Unity doesn’t provide reports on outreach to the council. He said that two Unity outreach workers accompany the sweeps to provide transportation for those seeking to go to a homeless shelter. 

“We don’t have any role in ordinance enforcement,” he said. “Our teams simply are present to take vulnerable folks to shelter.”

Asked this week about whether the reports are adequate, Giarrusso said, “I think it’s a first step.”

In its opposition letter to the council, Unity warned that outreach data wouldn’t do much to further the city’s understanding of needed services, saying the information would be “of limited benefit because resources are not currently available to assist the majority of them.”

Also missing from the reports are weekly logs of all personal property that was confiscated and stored during the sweeps.Those logs aren’t attached to the reports, which state that no one accepted “voluntary storage” offered by the city.

‘Homeless encampments are a rational response’

Many of the residents of the homeless encampments that spoke with The Lens expressed gratitude that the city cleaned the encampments. Some said that regardless of perceived flaws with the cleanups, they believed that the city was trying in earnest to help them. Still, most took issue with aspects of the city’s approach, arguing that policies should be designed with the acceptance that, at least for the time being, the encampments are here to stay.

“They come clean up and that’s good, but coming and taking people’s stuff, I don’t understand it,” said a man named Eddy, who stays with his wife Chiketa near the corner of Calliope Street and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Like Chris, Eddy also declined to provide his last name.  “I’ve seen them take tents, roll up beds, sleeping bags. I really think they want the people to leave. But where can they go?”

Residents of the encampments The Lens spoke with said that as long as they have to stay on the street, the benefits of the tents far outweigh those concerns. They provide shelter from wind and rain that’s blown under the overpass. They also protect from rats and pigeon poop. And they provide a sense of safety and privacy, especially for women.

“I’m a female out here and when we didn’t have a tent, people were just grabbing at me,” said Kim, who asked The Lens to omit her last name. “So for women, it’s a very important thing.”

And, some argued, the tents provide a relief and regularity to an otherwise uncomfortable position. 

“Those are our comforts,” Craig said. “And when you take that away we’re left with nothing.”

Unity’s focus is on ending all unsheltered homelessness. But it appears that goal won’t be achieved in the immediate future. Martha Kegel, the long-time director of Unity, warned the city last year that after a decade of dropping homelessness rates, the trend was beginning to reverse.

“The situation is a crisis,” she said at a press conference in April. “We can’t keep up. We don’t have the resources.”

Kegel said that at the root of the new trend, which she called a “crossroads” for the city, is the housing affordability crisis in the region. 

“There is a very significant shortage of affordable housing,”  Hereen-Mueller told The Lens. “And if we want to end homelessness we need to increase the availability of affordable housing.”

Unity has lobbied the City Council to invest more local dollars in getting people off the streets, rather than only relying on federal funding. Specifically, it has pushed for more money for rent assistance to get people into permanent housing, as well as a “rapid response fund” that could intervene with financial aid to prevent people from falling into homelessness to begin with. 

Several homeless residents who spoke to The Lens, as well as national homeless advocacy organizations, argue that encampments are the best available solution for this population in the absence of adequate shelters or permanent housing. Staying elsewhere in the city — such as in residential or business districts, or in abandoned buildings — carries a greater risk of arrest.

“Homeless encampments are a rational response to the dangers of living isolated on the streets,” said a 2018 report from the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council. “People congregate in encampments seeking safety, companionship, pooled resources, and other practical needs.”

For many of the people that spoke with The Lens, the encampments provide someplace to go when they have nowhere else to turn. 

“There’s no place for me to go to lay my head or take a shower,” said one man under the I-10 overpass who asked that his name not be published. “Not everybody out here takes drugs or drinks. Most people are out here because they lost their home for whatever reason and they’re trying to get back on their feet. But there’s no place for them to go.” 

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...