Alfred Bryant III has been homeless since he got out of prison in October 2019, even though he's been able to find work as a sanitation worker. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Since the coronavirus-related economic downturn began in the spring, tens of thousands of New Orleans residents have faced a sudden loss of income. And since spring, housing advocates, labor leaders and homeless services providers have warned that if the government didn’t drastically increase assistance, the inevitable result would be an increase in homelessness.

According to homeless service providers who spoke to The Lens, that’s exactly what the city is now facing. Partly as a result of a temporary hotel-placement program, the number of unsheltered homeless people is lower than at the beginning of the year, but it appears to be growing fast.

“We would have expected the numbers on the street to rise over the past three months – just not nearly this much,” Martha Kegel, Director of Unity of Greater New Orleans, the region’s leading homeless service provider, told The Lens in an email late last month. 

All along Calliope Street under the Pontchartrain Expressway, homeless encampments are growing denser and more numerous. At the corner of Calliope Street and Annunciation Street in late August, three homeless people were collecting their clothing, getting ready to walk over to a laundromat. They asked to remain anonymous, citing employment opportunities.

 “I really would do anything to get out of here,” said one man. “I would give up everything to get a shower. Look at all these bug bites, it’s awful. Mosquitos out here biting the fuck out of me all night. In a heartbeat, dude, I’d take any opportunity to get out of here. This isn’t cool anymore. This isn’t fun.”

According to advocates, New Orleans’ unsheltered homeless population has exploded over the last few months, including a growing number of first-time homeless residents, some of whom have fallen out of a tourism and hospitality industry hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We’re looking at a lot of new homeless people,” Kegel said.

Unity is designated by the federal government as the “continuum of care agency” for Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, meaning it’s responsible agency for tracking homelessness in the region, as well as applying for and distributing approximately $21 million in annual funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to a network of nonprofits and service providers. 

“A key culprit appears to be the economic fallout of the pandemic, causing people who have never before been homeless to lose their jobs, get evicted, and turn to the streets because family and friends cannot take them in,” Kegel said, noting that the pandemic has made people reticent about having people in their homes, even family members.

“A second factor, which the COVID-19 economic problems are exacerbating, is the affordable housing shortage which had already caused a sharp spike in homelessness between January 2019 and January 2020,” she said. “The pandemic is compounding the constant churn of new homelessness.”

When The Lens previously interviewed Kegel in early August, she had a more optimistic tone. 

“Our hope and our vision is that we can somehow emerge from the pandemic with less homelessness than we had before, instead of more homelessness,” she said then. “But it’s going to be very challenging to do that.”

Her hope was largely derived from a program that temporarily placed 2,000 people across Louisiana into hotels — 616 in New Orleans alone — over the last five months in response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to data provided by the Louisiana Housing Corporation. 

Kegel said that by the time the program stopped accepting new people, on May 31, the city’s unsheltered homeless population was the lowest it had been in decades. 

“We believe we got the unsheltered homeless population well below 50 people,” Kegel said.

After that interview, in mid-August, Unity completed a “point in time” survey to get an idea of how many homeless people were living on New Orleans’ streets. Kegel knew there would be an increase from June — the hotel program was no longer accepting new people, the economic crisis was dragging on, eviction protections were expiring and federal unemployment benefits were evaporating. 

Even so, the rate at which people were ending up back on the streets took Kegel by surprise. The August survey found more than four times the number of unsheltered homeless people than its previous estimate, from June.

“What we counted was 199 people sleeping on the streets of New Orleans,” she said. “That’s a shocking number. Because we estimated the number of people on the streets on June 1, after we finished the initiative to bring people into the hotels, was substantially less than 50. … Almost everyone was off the street. And then to have it shoot back up to 199 people already, it’s heartbreaking.”

Many of those people are concentrated under the Pontchartrain Expressway. Another nearby gathering place is no longer available. Right after the hotel program began, the city put up permanent fencing around another large encampment on the corner of Claiborne Avenue and Canal Street. The two square blocks of fencing cost $295,000 according to a spokesman for Mayor LaToya Cantrell. 

Sarah Parks is the Executive Director of Grace at the Greenlight, a Central City group that serves many of the people on Calliope Street, in particular around Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. 

“Obviously this is a historical thing that’s been done through the years, fencing off different areas of the city, and it just kind of moves the problem around without actually helping,” she said. “People are either a little more hidden in the downtown area or they’re shifting over to Calliope.”

‘There’s new people every single day’

The unsheltered population is likely still smaller than it was in January, when Unity estimated there were about 555 people on the street. Based on the count of people later placed in hotels — 616 — the actual number was likely higher. Kegel warned that the city could soon surpass those numbers if the government — the federal government in particular — doesn’t act fast. 

At an April press conference, Stacy Koch, director of housing at the Louisiana Office of Community Development, said that the goal of the hotel program was to permanently house “75 percent of these people before we have to close the hotel room doors.” So far, however, that number is closer to 17 percent.

Of the 616 people in New Orleans who were taken into hotels, 113 have been placed in some form of permanent or supportive housing, according to a statement from the Louisiana Housing Corporation. As of July 31, there were “approximately 230” people left in hotels in New Orleans, an LHC spokesperson told The Lens. 

According to the agency, 48 other people left voluntarily or were told to leave because they refused to participate in offered services, 26 were kicked out for violence or violation of program rules, three are receiving “long-term treatment,” one was jailed and 33 people were categorized as “unknown: did not return or data isn’t available.” The state also said that two people had passed away while staying at the hotels.

“People experiencing homelessness are considered a vulnerable population, with a portion exhibiting underlying health conditions,” said a statement from Na’Tisha Natt, public affairs director for the Louisiana Housing Corporation. “One senior resident passed away while in his room and one incident of an individual who experienced a fatal accident outside of the hotel while still a resident.”

From March, city workers clear out a homeless encampment as people were moved into hotels.About 230 people from New Orleans remained housed in those hotels as of late August. (Sophie Kasakove/The Lens)

The department’s statement accounted for about 450 of the 616 people put into hotels. The spokesperson did not respond to questions about what was known of the others. 

“Some of the hotel occupants had fallen back out on the street, a higher number than we anticipated, which we believe is primarily due to the fact that we did not have permanent housing resources available to house them when we brought them in,” Kegel said. “Some did not want to stay in the far-flung locations of most of the hotels. We are still working with those folks to get them housed.”

The first group of people taken into hotels in March were put in the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown New Orleans. However, in part due to concerns about sanitation at the Hilton, the homeless residents were moved to several smaller hotels, mostly in eastern New Orleans.

“There were a total of about 15 that were used at one point,” Kegel said. “We were basically limited by what hotels we could get to participate. And sometimes the hotels weren’t necessarily located in the place where people would want to or were used to living or near where their doctors were.”

First-time homeless

The apparent increase in homelessness isn’t only coming from people falling out of the hotels, according to service providers who spoke to The Lens. Several said they noticed a new trend: a rising number of newly homeless people, many of whom used to work in the city’s tourism and hospitality industry, which has been brought to a standstill by COVID-19.

“What the outreach team is reporting is that a lot of people formally employed in the hospitality industry are now living on the street, particularly people who were employed in the French Quarter,” Kegel said. “That’s a lot of what they’re seeing, people who worked in restaurants and hotels.”

Parks said that she’s been seeing the same thing. 

“There are a substantial amount of people that are experiencing homelessness for their first time,” Parks said. “There’s new people every single day. I’m coming across a lot of new people, people from New Orleans as well as people from smaller cities who may have had to leave their homes and there were no resources offered in their city so they ended up here.”

Parks said that many of those people say they were evicted from rental homes. She said that was happening even before New Orleans’ courts started processing evictions again in June after state and local moratoriums expired.

“There’s a lot of people who maybe weren’t officially on a lease, but were staying with friends, and they lost their job and they couldn’t pay their friend the rent money so their friend kicked them out. So shutting eviction courts doesn’t solve all the problems, people are still getting kicked out right and left.”

Last month, Kegel predicted that evictions would ramp up even more following the August 24 expiration of a provision of the federal CARES Act that placed a freeze on evictions for properties that participated in a wide variety of federal programs, including federally backed mortgages and Section 8 housing. 

“We’re seeing this increase, and this was even before the federal restrictions on evictions were lifted,” Kegel said. 

This week, however, in an effort to head off a widely predicted wave of evictions, the Trump administration announced a new nationwide eviction moratorium applying to all renters who meet certain conditions, including income eligibility. The order is expected to take effect by Sept. 4. 

At the same time, there are still approximately 230 homeless people in hotels, many of whom could also end up back on the street once the program ends. The state hasn’t announced a firm end date for the program. 

“Unfortunately, cost becomes a factor when determining how to continue this work because resources are extremely limited, and the need is great,” the statement from the Louisiana Housing Corporation said.. 

The state estimated that it had spent $28 million on the program so far. The federal government is expected to cover 75 percent of the costs. FEMA, however, has only approved $10 million in spending, according to the state.

“FEMA has only officially approved the State’s effort through May,” said a statement from Louisiana Housing Corporation. “The [Louisiana Housing Corporation] has submitted an extension request through [The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness], with the expectation that FEMA will send approval for the extension, which GOHSEP tells us, should cover through the end of August. At that time, the State will have to request an additional extension.”

Claiborne Encampment Fenced Off

City contractors install permanent fence around what was recently one of the city’s largest homeless encampments at the corner of Claiborne and Cleveland Avenues in July 2020. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

In May, the goal of the hotel program was to get every homeless person in New Orleans into a hotel room if they wanted one. But the original mission wasn’t that ambitious. Originally, the program was focused on one specific encampment and was supposed to last for only 30 days. 

Specifically, the city wanted to round up everyone at one of the city’s largest homeless encampments on the corner of Claiborne Avenue and Canal Street. 

“In late March about 200 people were moved out of Claiborne camp, along with some out of Duncan Plaza,” Kegel said. 

In recent years, New Orleans homeless encampments have been concentrated in two areas — under the I-10 overpass at the corner of Claiborne and Canal and under the Pontchartrain Expressway overpass all up and down Calliope street. The hotel program didn’t reach out to Calliope street homeless into hotels until late May. 

A few days after the Claiborne encampment was cleared, the city put up temporary fencing around it. In April, the city sent a contractor to install permanent fencing — the same black metal fences that, over the last decade, have come to surround many areas under overpasses where homeless encampments were once located.

The fencing project had been in the works since 2018. The cost, according to Cantrell spokesperson David Lee Simmons, was $295,000 for two square blocks of fencing.

“Once this population was relocated, the City rapidly initiated two capital projects to more permanently address homelessness within the greater downtown area,” an emailed statement from Simmons said.

One of those two projects was fencing off the Claiborne encampment. When The Lens asked Cantrell’s office to identify the fence’s purpose, it repeatedly responded by citing the heightened risk at the encampment due to the coronavirus and related dangers, such as aggressive, starving rodents. 

“The City determined this location unsafe for the homeless population to live,” Simmons’ email said. 

However, the city also said that the fencing project was “commissioned” by the administration in 2018 and the contract was put out for bid in February 2019. The Lens asked the administration multiple times what the original justification for the project was, given that it was conceived well before the coronavirus pandemic began. City officials didn’t respond to those questions. 

Several homeless people that spoke with The Lens believe the fences, installed at a rare moment when the area was devoid of unsheltered homeless, was about moving homeless people out of the downtown area. They say the location of the fences, plus the fact that it took another two months to invite homeless people from other encampments into hotels, indicated that the city was interested in clearing the downtown of homeless people. 

“All they care about is the city looking good in the metro area, in the CBD,” Alfred Bryant III told The Lens. “They don’t care about none of this here.”

Bryant was sitting on his bed under the Claiborne overpass, far from Canal street near St. Bernard Avenue. He was in one of the several smaller encampments — less than ten people each — which still exist on Claiborne outside of the downtown area. Bryant said he’d gotten out of prison in October 2019, and although he has a job with janitorial services provider Empire Services, he hasn’t been able to find a home he can afford. 

“You still have people under the bridge like me,” he said. “This is where I live at. I wash my clothes by hand in this bucket. This is how I’m living.”

Parks said that all the fences will do is move people from the city’s downtown towards Calliope. 

“It doesn’t solve the problem at all,” she said. “It just kind of shifts and spreads people out.”

The location of the Claiborne encampment wasn’t random. In interviews spanning years, homeless residents at the encampment have told The Lens they’ve chosen the spot because of its vicinity to University Medical Center New Orleans a few blocks away. 

“It’s definitely hard for people to get access where we are at,” Parks said. “There is a healthcare for the homeless clinic on Simon Bolivar. So sometimes people go there. But it’s definitely harder to access services the further you are away from the hospitals.”

While the fences may not reduce homelessness, Cantrell’s office said that the other capital project it initiated will.

“The [fence] contractor was released to begin construction in April of this year,” the statement said. “At that time it is was determined that the City would expand the Low Barrier Homeless Shelter at the VA Hospital to increase its capacity from 100 to 350 beds.”

The city expects the expansion to be done in Spring 2021, and that it would be paid for with federal Community Development Block Grants.

That’s nearly a year before the city sees that increase in shelter capacity. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is still at in the double digits, and state unemployment benefits are among the lowest in the country. 

“We’re definitely going to need more resources from Congress,” Kegel said. “I would hate to see all this hard and intense work to house the homeless to be completely overshadowed and engulfed by a new tsunami of homelessness.”

She said that rental assistance needs to become an even bigger priority for the city.

“It’s all a matter of inadequate resources,” she said.

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...