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Are the Homeless Being Used as Pawns in a War on the Occupy Movement?

Occupy NOLA did not face Tuesday crack-downs, but the closure of a homeless camp and a recent death have occupiers asking questions of city officials.

Beneath the veneer of New Orleans’ vibrant culture lies a history of tragedy. From the Yellow Fever outbreaks of the 19th century, the many catastrophic storms that have visited the city, the violence of the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the vast social dysfunction of contemporary New Orleans, this is a city that has known adversity throughout. It is sadly fitting, then, that Occupy NOLA is one of the few occupations to have witnessed a death on the encampment. Last week, 53 year old Ronald Dean Howell, known as “Curly” or “Old School” to friends, was found dead in his tent. The coroner’s chief investigator, John Gagliano, stated that the cause of death was “complications from alcohol abuse.” According to other occupiers, the man was homeless, and likely relocated from another tent city at Calliope Street and the Pontchartrain Expressway, which was closed by authorities on October 27th.

Occupiers throughout the country have naturally found themselves sharing space with local homeless populations: the most vulnerable and marginalized of the 99%. This has been particularly pronounced in New Orleans, which continues to struggle with an acute homeless problem stemming from the devastation of the city’s housing stock during Hurricane Katrina. According to data provided by UNITY of Greater New Orleans, the city’s largest homeless non-profit coalition, the homeless rate remains 70% higher than pre-storm levels, with nearly 10,000 people lacking some form of permanent shelter. Many of these suffer from serious mental and physical illnesses, including high levels of alcohol and drug abuse. Mr. Howell’s story is typical, and his death would probably have gone largely unnoticed had it not occurred in the midst of this burgeoning movement. Instead, his passing has served to illuminate the systemic problem of homelessness in New Orleans, while also raising suspicions about the city’s motivation in closing down his previous home on Calliope Street.

In post-Katrina New Orleans, affordable housing has become a serious issue. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, four of the most recognized public housing sites were demolished: Lafitte, St. Bernard, B.W. Cooper and C.J. Peete. This came on the heels of contentious debate in the city council, which voted unanimously in favor of the demolition despite vocal opposition from community members. According to the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), these units were replaced by mixed income housing, each managed by various private developers.

Meanwhile, the general housing stock was devastated by the storm. According to HUD, 75,000 units were destroyed, and 45,000 remain abandoned today. The diminished supply has naturally resulted in increased rents across the board. In the same HUD report, the median cost of housing in New Orleans increased 33.2 % from $662 in 2004 to $882 in 2009 (adjusted for inflation). Meanwhile, the rate for the most affordable housing has risen dramatically. According to Linda Gonzalez, the Director of New Orleans Mission, a non-profit providing services for the homeless, “basic apartments cost about $250 before the storm, and are now up to $500-$700 depending on what area of the city.” This is confirmed by data from the HUD report that shows the number of units available in the $300-600 range has fallen from 66,300 in 2004 to 19,300 in 2009. Affordable rents have greatly dissipated in the city, while wages have stagnated as part of the larger, national trend. In response to the HUD report, UNITY Executive Director Martha Kegel was then quoted as saying: “We have more unaffordable rent than even New York City. That’s because we have very high rent and we have very, very low income.”

As such, the homeless population has grown so rapidly that “tent cities” have become a relatively common occurrence. The Occupy NOLA encampment, located at Duncan Plaza, is not the first of its kind. In 2007, a homeless camp took shape in the same location, eventually growing to include 249 individuals, according to UNITY. That encampment was ultimately closed by the city, beginning on November 21st of that year. Then-mayor Ray Nagin’s administration worked with the non-profit community, including UNITY, to relocate these people to a mixture of hotels or apartments. A similar encampment at Claiborne and Canal with about 150 individuals was broken up in similar fashion the following July. In both cases, the non-profit community was provided prior notice and allowed to make assessments of the physical and mental health of people at the encampment.

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