Homelessness in New Orleans: Is it Getting Worse?

Traffic passes under the Claiborne Avenue overpass. Loud car horns blare, trucks go by spewing exhaust, shaking the ground. Scattered tents cover the area. People are just beginning their day. Three men stand smoking rolled-up cigarettes, a shirtless man starts rummaging through clothes we’ve thrown away, trying to decide which is the least dirty, what’s the best to wear. He has no tent, just a coat splayed on the ground in the middle of the encampment. A beautiful, seemingly healthy pit bull rests nearby.

Decatur Street. A woman sits by a stoop. Red-dyed dreadlocks, dirty clothes, a cute little mutt mix resting nearby. She sleeps on the streets sometimes; sometimes she finds an abandoned building to camp in for the night; New Orleans has an abundance of places like that. She’s friendly, smart, and draws really well, selling her permanent marker-based illustrations. In my house, I own such artwork, made by various people. She has a sign reading, “Need fake blood.” I sit beside her and she explains that real blood will do. She gives me her name: Eeyore, “like the donkey… There’s been, um, a few girls, I just found out a girl has been raped and murdered in one of the squats that I used to stay in last year. And that was a couple weeks ago. And I think it’s people I know around here that did it. So I try to be, if I’m sleeping by myself in the more populated area, so it’s, I’m in sight if something happens.”

Homelessness is sometimes a do or die situation, especially in New Orleans, where 126 people have died so far this year. It’s the murder capital of Louisiana, with 43.8 murders per 100,000 people.

Homelessness, public housing, and affordable housing are interconnected. Depending on whom you talk to, the situation is getting better or getting worse. But there is one fact that everybody should be able to agree on, and that is that since the city has been tearing down the projects, there are simply fewer affordable homes, by default.

Mike Howells, activist, educator, tarot card reader, and a man with one of the most impressively large beards I’ve ever seen, describes the organization he is a part of  which works to protect affordable housing: “C3/Hands Off Iberville-we were originally formed to fight the U.S. invasion of Iraq.” Eventually, they turned their focus to a more local goal: public housing. “We basically built a solidarity group between people who lived on Iberville and people like ourselves who lived outside it. And what joined us together was a commitment to public housing.” He added, “After Hurricane Katrina, we certainly found ourselves in a situation where the struggle for public housing was magnified 10-fold, because HANO (Housing Authority New Orleans) had closed the traditional five housing developments, for the storm (Hurricane Katrina). And then after the storm had passed, and the city reopened, HANO basically took advantage of the situation to speed up the attack on public housing.” Of the five developments, they were only able to get one reopened. In the year 2007, the city voted to demolish four of five developments. Years later, Iberville would be completely demolished. New pieces of property would be built in their place, seemingly much nicer, but holding far fewer people.

With Housing NOLA, which is a cooperative group trying to help promote affordable housing in New Orleans, they say that to make the homeless situation truly manageable, they’ll need at least 33,000 homes for homeless people to live in. That goal is not being met according to Housing NOLA’s Executive Director Andranecia M. Morris, who The Gambit referred to as, “the person of the year.” She and her organization went from giving themselves a “C” grade in 2017, to a “D” in 2018.

“There’s a lot of good but also a lot of challenges. Accountability is at the heart of what we do, and so we assess our collective performance annually. Last year we got a ‘C’ and this year we got a ‘D,’ and when I say we, that’s a collective ‘we’. It’s not just Housing NOLA. It’s not just the city. It’s not just the lenders. It’s not just the developers. It’s not just the Feds, it is the collective.”

The reasons are complex. Our conversation about those reasons lasts nearly 40 minutes. Morris describes Housing NOLA: “Housing NOLA is a 10-year public-private partnership that is responsible for monitoring and managing and cheerleading, and sometimes executing a ten-year housing plan that seeks to end housing insecurity in New Orleans.”

Part of the problem, she explains to me, is that the houses aren’t being built fast enough and that the homelessness continues to add up. As one person is housed, another person pops up. It’s a group problem but one reason is that they haven’t built the number of houses they promised. “They committed three years ago to create 7,500 affordable housing opportunities. We are off by quite a bit this year in affordable housing opportunities.”

“So that’s not good, but on the good side, the community is engaged now more than ever; unfortunately, that speaks to the depth of the crisis. It’s gotten so bad that more people are reaching out or finding about this effort and wanting to be a part of it, which is great, and we know that and we recognize it is gonna be hard, even though we brought everybody together in a lot of public/private partnerships.”

Most of the money for affordable or subsidized housing comes from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“There has been no end to the chaos around the HUD budget since Donald Trump became President. Every year for the last two years we’ve had to endure drastically slashing our programs in the HUD budget. There was talk of eliminating the home program, there was talk of reducing the Section 8 program. And so, of course, that just creates chaos. That doesn’t allow for people to plan… There is a real need for the funding of HUD, but there also needs to be some reforms at HUD.”

Lack of affordable housing, she says, is the largest contributor to homelessness:

“Creating affordable housing, enough affordable housing for all, is one way of ending homelessness. Now you are going to have these people who have challenges… The chronically homeless. People with mental issues, disability issues, substances abuse issues. Challenges that make it hard to maintain and stay in traditional housing. That’s where the housing first program and where our continuing local care that’s unity made the pioneering income come to bear. If you can create these housing opportunities for men and women who are struggling, give them housing and provide them with a wrap-around, services and stabilize them, they will be able to stay, and sustain, and maintain and hopefully eventually thrive, and we’ve seen that.”

Part of the answer, she says lies in more affordable housing being created faster, but it also includes “inclusionary housing.”

“That’s why we have our smart housing mix policy which is mandatory inclusionary zoning in certain parts of the city. It is our number 1 priority for a number of reasons. It’s not going to result in hundreds of thousands or even thousands of units. It will really results in 100s of units… Even though we need 33,000… These are important because they signal that this city is saying to its partners, its developers in the private market, that this is the crisis of the day, and you must assist us in it. If you want to be a part of this city you must contribute to a solution to this problem.”

Inclusionary housing will put low-income people in higher income housing groups. Unfortunately, not everyone at the city level thought it was a good idea. With the House voting to remove inclusionary housing requirements, one council member she says phrased it: “We heard previously this year, the previous city council actually voted to remove affordable housing requirements Council Member James Gray, much to our shock and dismay, said that he thought that the poor would be uncomfortable living in such a nice building.”

Her thoughts on that were to the point, saying “It’s ignorant and it’s biased.”

Belden “Noonie” Batiste, who is running for Congress, has some thoughts on the housing situation as well. “My people’s campaign is the ‘Poor People’s Campaign’ That Doctor Martin Luther King did in 1967-8… My campaign covers an economic bill of rights, it covers housing, it covers homelessness, it covers the medical care…” He pointed out that as part of the campaign Dr. King wanted the government to stop building weapons of war when they could take care of the homeless. Batiste pointed out that, “And that’s why I choose that program. That’s what I fight for.”

Asked whether the homeless situation improving, Batiste replied, “I think it’s getting worse. And the reason I say it’s getting worse, is because you’ve got hospitality workers making $2.38 an hour, and so they working off of tips alright. They don’t have to pay their bills alright, and so they don’t have money to pay their bills and housing, so they go sleep under the bridge on Canal and Claiborne.”

He adds, “Why can’t we help ‘em out and help them get back on their feet, and raise the minimum wage to $18 an hour?”

However, Pastor Gregory L. Hawthorne is a “Prophet” from Abundant Believers Church. He actually thinks the homeless situation is improving. His voice has a friendliness that draws me in from the moment we speak. There’s a sense of kindness in each of his words. He and his ministry have been traveling from Florida to New Orleans from just days after Hurricane Katrina hit, and they haven’t stopped since. Different people obviously have different perspectives on homelessness. In the Pastor’s case, he feels “It’s getting better.” When I ask why, he says, “I think it’s getting better because of the power of prayer. I feel that the hand of the Lord is turning it around. It’s a lot better than it was before we began.”

Morris says, “We all need to be doing better. There’s a lot of room for improvement.”

Michael David Raso has worked as a writer, editor, and journalist for several different publications since graduating from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. If you like this piece, you can read more of his work here.

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