From March 2020, city of New Orleans workers clear out homeless encampments. (Sophie Kasakove/The Lens)

Janice Foreman arrived in New Orleans in August after losing her mobile home in Lafayette. She was in a workplace accident more than a decade before, rupturing three spinal discs and leaving her out of work. Finally, this year, the money from her insurance settlement ran out, and she couldn’t afford to rent the land for the trailer anymore.

She began camping on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard under the Pontchartrain Expressway, going weeks without a mattress. 

“Your hips hurt, your back hurt, everything hurts,” she said. Then, “6 weeks ago, I was getting out of my tent, and I just collapsed.” Her legs had completely stopped carrying her.

A doctor told her that her discs had deteriorated further, and gave her a wheelchair. She’s been in it ever since.

Foreman doesn’t like to complain. She said that she’s made some of the deepest friendships of her life living on the street, and she jokes about the “rat mafia” that’s gone after her friend’s food. But last week felt like a breaking point, she told the Lens.

Foreman said that early this month, she was sexually assaulted by a man in her tent. Foreman called the police and provided an incident number for the alleged assault. An NOPD spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions on Tuesday as to whether an arrest has been made.

When her attacker briefly took his hand off of her mouth, she said, “One of my friends heard me yelling and pulled me out of there, so I’m fortunate. Because of the injuries, I went to the hospital and ended up with pneumonia.”

She tested negative for COVID, she said. Now, she’s in a nursing facility receiving physical therapy, and isn’t sure when she’ll leave. 

Foreman is one of hundreds of people who’ve ended up on the street since the beginning of the pandemic–her circumstances aren’t due to COVID-19, but according to an October report from the nonprofit UNITY, which provides services to unhoused people in the city, 200 people began sleeping unsheltered over the summer.

Last March, New Orleans, along with state and nonprofit partners, initiated a successful program that sheltered people in hotel rooms. The program, requested by the city because of concerns about COVID-19 as well as an expanding rat infestation caused by French Quarter business closures, ended up moving hundreds of people into long-term housing solutions as well. Seventy-five percent of the costs of shelter were reimbursed by FEMA. But the program wound down over the summer. In June, it stopped accepting new people into housing, and closed its doors entirely in November.

Then, on Jan. 21, the Biden administration issued an executive order that allowed FEMA to reimburse 100 percent of hotel housing programs, based on the chance of COVID spreading among vulnerable populations in congregate shelters or encampments. In theory, that means that New Orleans could open a similar program at no cost.

But the city hasn’t moved to restart the program. Asked why, officials provided several different explanations.

In January, the city’s health director told a group of advocates that the state was not interested in restarting the program. State officials told The Lens that the city would have to make the initial request, and they have not.

Then last week, a spokesperson for Mayor LaToya Cantrell told The Lens that cash flow and administrative issues mean that it can’t take advantage of the money. Sales tax revenues continue to suffer as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. And FEMA funding is almost always provided as a reimbursement, meaning that the city must be able to pay for a program up front.

The city, however, is set to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid as the result of last week’s passage of the federal American Rescue Plan. Pressed this week on whether cash is still getting in the way of restarting the shelter program, another spokesperson, LaTonya Norton, told The Lens this week a nonprofit — rather than city government — has now taken the lead on emergency shelter programs. 

“[The city and state] have done this before,” said Andreanecia Morris, executive director of HousingNOLA, who has been advocating for a renewed hotel program. “It is very frustrating,” she continued, and the city’s “pantomime doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Many of the conditions that led to the initial program persist. Little data exists on COVID deaths among unsheltered people, but national experts say that the population is at extremely high risk for the disease. And Foreman described ongoing rat problems, including animals that gnawed into tents and bit people.

Since mid-January, at least four people have died on the street in New Orleans, said Angela Owczarek, who works in street outreach for the social service agency Travelers Aid. Since Owczarek spoke to The Lens on March 5, Foreman said that another man died: a close friend, who was staying in her tent while she was in the hospital. (NOPD records show that police responded to a call about an “unclassified death” near the corner of O.C. Haley Boulevard and Calliope Street on March 6. A police spokesperson referred The Lens to the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office for comment. A spokesperson for the Coroner’s Office declined to provide additional details about the death, saying an investigation was ongoing.)

A memorial on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard for a man who died in a tent in early March. (Courtesy of Delaney Nolan)

“Certainly homelessness and exposure contributed to all those deaths,” Owczarek said. The people who died had underlying health conditions, but “those health conditions wouldn’t have been as bad if they weren’t homeless.”

Foreman said she would have jumped at the chance to stay in a hotel–she spent many nights fearing for her life.

“What [a hotel room] would mean to me is not being assaulted and almost raped,” Foreman said. “It would mean not picking up pneumonia and a staph infection. It would mean avoiding a lot of trauma.”

“If you look at what the cost of inaction is,” said Sarah Saadian, the vice president for policy at the National Low Income Housing Institute, which is pushing cities and states to take advantage of the funding, “there really isn’t a good reason for why states and cities aren’t using this more broadly.”

The old program

The spring program was operated through a partnership between the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the Louisiana Housing Corporation, the Department of Children and Family Services, the city of New Orleans, and homeless services provider UNITY of Greater New Orleans.

On March 26, RTA buses arrived at encampments in Duncan Plaza and along the Claiborne Avenue underpass, and within a day, moved hundreds of people into rooms at the Hilton Garden Inn.

The program didn’t end with hotels, but also provided case management through UNITY. That included “case managers to assess clients’ needs for housing and services, stabilize their mental and physical health” and “housing navigators to help clients fill out housing applications,” wrote Martha Kegel, UNITY’s director, over email.

LHC and GOHSEP provided much of the upfront funding, contracting and paying for some hotel rooms on a month-by-month basis. UNITY also paid for a smaller number of rooms on a nightly basis, mostly for people who had been housed in state parks after testing positive for COVID-19 and later recovering. The nonprofit group took out a $2 million line of credit to cover its costs, including those of case management. Seventy-five percent of the hotel costs were reimbursed by FEMA, while support services were reimbursed through U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants provided through the CARES Act.

The initial month of housing at the Hilton cost $298,080 for 144 rooms. In April, GOHSEP contracted an additional 120 rooms at a Quality Inn in eastern New Orleans for $256,860 per month.

LHC handled the specific requests for reimbursement from FEMA, and then distributed those funds to local agencies and nonprofits. 

“It’s quite a paper-intensive process when you’re drawing down money from FEMA,” said Stacy Bonnaffons, a disaster recovery consultant who is working with LHC.

According to UNITY and LHC officials, the program was largely successful at getting people off the street. By June 1, 2020, UNITY estimated that only 30 people were living unsheltered in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, down from more than 500 in January. The overall number of unhoused people — including those living in cars and shelters — dropped from 1,300 to about 900.

And for many, the hotel rooms and case management were a stepping-stone into their own housing. By September, UNITY reported that 292 people in Orleans and Jefferson parishes had transitioned from hotels to permanent housing.

“It was a model that many states adopted because of what we did right off the bat in March,” Brad Sweazy, LHC’s chief operating officer, told The Lens in a Monday interview.

The program began winding down over the summer. When it ended in November, all the people who were placed in a hotel room had either found housing or a shelter or “moved onto someplace else,” Bonnaffons said. 

Meanwhile, homelessness began to creep back up. In August, UNITY estimated that 211 people were living unsheltered, “many newly homeless as a direct result of the pandemic and the scarcity of affordable housing.”

There were issues with the previous program, acknowledged Kali Villarosa, an organizer with Southern Solidarity, a volunteer group that supports unsheltered people in New Orleans.

People couldn’t bring their pets to the hotels, which was a nonstarter for some. And in April, the program moved a number of people into hotels in New Orleans East, which created barriers to accessing work or support networks.

“Yeah, folks are unsheltered, but they have a home in New Orleans, so they should be able to continue to access the spaces they are used to,” Villarosa said. 

Even so, said Owczarek, the shelter made a difference for everyone living outside.

“[It] allowed those of us working on the streets to have more bandwidth to address needs of folks still living on streets.”

A shifting city explanation

In a Jan. 15 letter to a group of activists shared with The Lens, New Orleans City Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno wrote that the hotel program was “previously funded and staffed by the State of Louisiana. We would welcome reinstatement of this program, but at this time the State has not expressed an intent to restart the referenced program.”

While it’s true that the costs of the spring program were mostly fronted by GOHSEP and LHC, officials with those agencies said that the city would need to request state assistance to restart it.

“Everything starts locally,” said Mike Steele, a spokesperson with GOHSEP. “If that mission needs to be executed again, we’ll look at it.”

Bonnaffons, with the Louisiana Housing Corporation, said that although she was in weekly calls with city Office of Community Development officials, the city hasn’t requested a reinstatement of the hotel program.

“We’re coordinating with them, and we haven’t heard them say, this is a request,” she said.

Sweazy cautioned that a renewed city program wouldn’t necessarily be guaranteed FEMA funding, because the initial funding was justified on the basis of a specific COVID outbreak. 

“If the request was to come again,” he said, “I don’t know what it would look like. Especially because the vaccine is out right now. … It could be that we’re focused on getting vaccines out to anyone who’s homeless, because the hotels may not be available right now.”

But he acknowledged that if the conditions of the public health emergency, including rat attacks and growing numbers of unsheltered people, still existed in New Orleans, the state could look at reopening the program.

“If the homeless population is back up to [early spring levels], that has to be addressed in some form or fashion,” he said. “We will work with the city, [but] the city would have to make that request and then, even with that, we would have to see what’s available. We’re not in the stance that [the pandemic is] over, but we’re definitely in a different position than we were last March.”

But in a written statement last week, city officials provided a different explanation: lack of money. 

“Our administration recognizes the hardships of our unhoused neighbors and we’re doing everything we can to house all our people. It’s important to note some of the obstacles faced along the way,” the statement said. “The federal government has not yet appropriated funds to cover the costs of hotels or other non-congregate housing that the White House has requested.  Even if the federal funds are made available, the pandemic’s economic downturn has left the City unable to front the costs of these activities while we wait for federal reimbursement.”

It’s not clear what federal appropriations the statement refers to. The increased FEMA reimbursement was effective in January, and applied retroactively to the spring expenditures without any additional paperwork, said Juan Ayala, a FEMA representative.

The city could, in theory, apply for FEMA funding on its own. The New Orleans City Council approved a $50 million line of credit in April to cover emergency spending during the pandemic. And the city due to receive $375 million from the most recent stimulus package passed by Congress last week.

There have been some indications that the city is considering reopening the program. In a Feb. 25 email obtained by the Lens through a records request, Avegno alluded to ongoing conversations with the state about restarting the program.

But in a Monday statement in response to follow up questions, a city spokesperson said restarting the program was UNITY’s responsibility, not City Hall’s.

“Unity of Greater New Orleans, … is taking the lead in negotiating with the State to advance non-congregate living for the City. The City supports these efforts and recognizes the Unity’s … past efforts around Non-congregate living uniquely qualify the organization for this activity.”

Kegel declined to comment, and state officials did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

“The city has a legal duty to manage the homeless population,” said Davida Finger, a law professor at Loyola University involved in advocacy for unsheltered people during the pandemic. “For the city to point fingers every which way … is not solution-oriented, and is not an approach a government agency that’s taking its duty to the citizen seriously would utilize.”

Homelessness advocates argue that the FEMA money is a rare opportunity to address a housing crisis that predates COVID.

“Communities are fielding complaints all the time about homeless encampments,” said Eric Tars, legal director for the National Homelessness Law Center. “You can eliminate all those complaints tomorrow, in a way that’s going to diminish homelessness in the long term. Once people are into a stable environment, they’re going to work on getting their benefits, stabilize on medications, apply for jobs when they’re not worried about their tent getting taken away.”

That’s a point that Foreman made as well. She’d watched other people lose tents with all their belongings–including IDs and important documents–during the city’s encampment sweeps. “It’s absolutely horrible,” she said. “People come back, and they’re devastated.”

And the program could even end up reducing overall city spending, Tars said, as people transition into permanent housing. “It’s entirely on the federal dime. … Literally you’re going to spend more of your own taxpayer dollars to keep people in unsafe situations on the street.”

Tars and a number of other advocates argued that the program would also act as a much-needed stimulus to the tourism industry. 

“I personally spoke to hotel owners and operators who wanted to participate in this program to expand the number of rooms,” said Morris of HousingNOLA. “This is not a resource issue, this is not a money issue. It’s a will issue.”