Despite Bill O'Reilly's ignorant denials, a community of around 200 people sleep in pup tents and makeshift shelters under the I-10 on Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans, just steps from tourist hotels on Canal Street.
These men and women, whose lives were poignantly depicted by Greg Thomas in a Feb. 12 cover story for Gambit Weekly, moved under the bridge when the city government closed their tent city in Duncan Plaza in front of City Hall and put up a fence around the plaza so that neither they nor anyone else could enter.
While the city's glaring public relations problem of a modern Hooverville in front of City Hall was ameliorated, loudmouthed out-of-towners like Kieth Olbermann and John Edwards continued to draw attention to the new camp under the interstate. Now, the city hopes to move these dispossessed citizens from their new camp to a tented barracks at the New Orleans Mission.
Unfortunately for Mayor Nagin, the public habitation law under which he wanted to force the residents of the tent city to move to the Mission barracks was repealed in 2001 after it was ruled illegal by a federal judge. This minor detail was missed by the mayor and his staff because, when the city's legal code was put into an online database, the public habitation code was included, though it was no longer on the books. More on this here.
While the mayor's chief concern may be the city's image, there are other more viable reasons to get the homeless into a more controlled environment. A survey of New Orleans' homeless released last week by UNITY of Greater New Orleans found that about a third of them suffer from severe health problems that could prove fatal in a short time.
Still, the question of what to do with these homeless citizens is minor compared to the larger question of why are they there to begin with.
These are not the cliched caricatures that people think of when they hear the word "homeless." The majority are not transients from elsewhere, but former homeowners and renters from this city. They were not "mainstreamed" to the street from mental institutions, but flooded out of their homes by the failure of a flood-protection system that, by law, their city and state were not allowed to touch, that system being the sole responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers.
When that system failed, more than 80% of the city's housing stock was damanged or destroyed, and the federal government's actions since have been useless at best. (As scorpiorising pointed out in his diary on Thursday, "at best" has a lot of alternatives, including the kind of cronyist corruption that has been the hallmark of the Bush Junior years.)
With the failure--or corruption--of HUD, the sturdy housing projects that survived the storm and flood are being demolished outright, or, as Lolis Eric Elie pointed out in a column this week, being stripped of valuable architectural fixtures under the guise of "asbestos abatement," then left roofless to be slowly destroyed by the elements.
Passing by the area of the complex along North Rocheblave Street you can see that the terra cotta roofs have been removed, exposing tar paper and wooden boards to the elements.
There appears to be no plan for salvaging the roof materials. Pieces of maroon terra cotta tiles are strewn about. There is no hope that these destroyed tiles can be donated to the Green Project or Habitat ReStore and used for the rebuilding of New Orleans.
"There is not a permit for demolishing Lafitte, but they do have a permit to do the abatement that is happening now," HUD spokeswoman Donna White said.
HUD's policy of "demolish first, promise later" is so obviously flawed that last week two officials of the U.N. Human Rights Council criticized the plan as "discriminatory" and a violation of basic human rights.
Meanwhile, in areas like New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward, block after block of houses and apartments remain empty. Photos and video can't convey the vast stretches of unpopulated neighborhoods, where homes occupied or under renovation are still the exception.
This is not to say there are no efforts to open housing units. College students, church groups and local volunteers have helped gut and renovate hundreds of homes. Efforts by groups like Habitat New Orleans, Make It Right and Barnes and Noble's Leonard Riggio are bringing hope of more progress.
But these efforts pale in comparison to the need. Federal community block grants seem to get steered to large private interests (as in Mississippi, where grants for middle-and-lower class housing were steered to large real estate and casino developers and Alabama, where storm aid went to finance luxury condos for Auburn football fans).
As in so many areas of life, there always seem to be sufficient resources and opportunities for the well-heeled, while the working class waits for a few scraps to "trickle down." There is currently a building boom in condominiums here, like the old Krauss department store on Canal Street, where units will be available later this year "from the low $200,000s."
One hopes that, for the sake of the Krauss development's residents, the camp under the interstate, just around the corner on Claiborne, will have been removed by move-in date.
Original photos taken this week in New Orleans.