In recent weeks, some local politicians have been targeting homelessness with a renewed focus. With good reason: homelessness in the city has risen 15% since last year, a sharper rise than even the startling nationwide increase of 11%

But rhetoric around some proposed solutions is often dehumanizing, and frames houseless people as dangerous — rather than as acutely vulnerable neighbors.

On July 16, the New Orleans City Council’s Quality of Life committee discussed two food-related ordinances framed as addressing public health concerns in homeless encampments. One of them, sponsored by Councilmember Eugene Green, would restrict food distribution to people living in outdoor encampments. Both were deferred in the face of strong public opposition.

Green, however, continues to push the proposed ordinance. It appears it will go to a vote as early as September. At the July committee meeting, Green responded to public critique of his ordinance with irritation. He accused the public of misunderstanding, and said he the ordinance will benefit those living in encampments. 

But housing advocates — many of whom work in encampments every day — have made clear that penalizing specific types of aid efforts, when food dumping is already prohibited, does nothing to protect houseless neighbors, and instead creates an air of criminality around unsanctioned interactions with them, discouraging needed aid.

Green has grown defensive in the face of such criticism. When contacted for a response to this column, he said, “I’m going to treat [this] in a hostile manner” before being asked any questions. 

Green argued his ordinance is not as punitive as his critics claim. A proposed amendment he introduced after the committee meeting calls for a written warning, rather than a citation, for a first offense. Subsequent offenses, however, could be punished with hefty fines and up to six months of jail time under his ordinance, compared to the maximum $100 fine and 90 days of jail time in current anti-dumping laws. Green insisted his ordinance does not discourage food aid, and that harmful rhetoric instead came from “people who consider themselves advocates who are making up facts.”

He then shared photographs of dumped food in front of the Guste Homes apartment complex, about two blocks away from encampments under the Pontchartain Expressway overpass. It was unclear how his proposal, which specifically addresses dumping next to “an overpass, elevated roadway, or … any encampment area,” would address that.

Green said that the city budget “shows exactly that we have provided services to those who are unhoused, and to organizations, such as organizations that provide mental health services, the Sobering Center, all of those activities are activities that benefit the homeless.”

But ultimately, he misses the point: the ordinance is, if nothing else, a misuse of resources. 

The city has done little to address dumped waste issues created by short-term rental operators. Neighbors around Sonder’s Schaeffer building, near Basin and Canal streets, have complained about piles of tourists’ garbage strewn across the sidewalk.

The city also failed, for months, to do anything to remedy a serious public health problem created by one of its own contractors, whose employees were dumping fecal matter-covered waste directly on the public sidewalk in encampments. 

And as local politicians debate cracking down on food drops, New Orleanians, right now, lack easy access to running water during a deadly, record-shattering heat wave.

Falling on deaf ears

The increase we have seen in homelessness comes as no surprise to affordable housing advocates, who have called for increased investment for years.

A plan by local nonprofits for the city to use more than $100 million in federal COVID aid to build thousands of units of deeply affordable housing earlier this year fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile, the need keeps increasing, and the city keeps falling further behind. According to HousingNOLA’s 2022 report, the city needs nearly 50,000 units of affordable housing, up from about 34,000 in previous reports. 

This housing crisis especially affects our most marginalized neighbors: more than 90% of unhoused people in the New Orleans area have at least one disabling condition. A 2021 survey of unhoused residents in the French Quarter showed that trans and gender non-conforming people are represented at 15 times the rate of the general US population, people formerly in foster care at eight times, and domestic violence survivors at three times.

The idea that houseless people wish to remain houseless — an idea brought up more than once in public meetings — is a pernicious myth. More than 90% of those surveyed reported they would accept housing if offered, and 74% reported that housing would be the most helpful intervention they could receive.

“For nearly every unhoused individual our outreach team speaks to on the streets of New Orleans,” said Angela Owczarek of homeless services group Travelers Aid, “ending their own homelessness is their primary and most urgent concern.”

Hygiene, not harassment

Travelers Aid has just seven street outreach workers for the entire city, who work tirelessly to connect people to housing. They, and others who work closely with the unhoused, are clear about measures that would help improve the health of encampment residents.

Functional portalets. Functional hand washing stations. More garbage disposal sites with regular service, meaningful rodent control, a provision of cleaning supplies to residents, and needle disposal containers.

Ed Strohsahl, an organizer with Southern Solidarity, a mutual aid group working with unhoused residents, said in an interview that “the absolute main issues are sanitation, garbage collection, and clean water.”

Yannick Wilwright, a resident of an encampment on Calliope Street, suggested “more sinks around the portalets to wash your hands.” Current handwashing stations have been broken for months. And Lettie Vaughn, who resides in a camp on Claiborne Avenue, noted that after the city recently removed nearby garbage cans, it’s harder for her to keep clean.

But it was the dumping of portalets — not buffet trays — that has recently been “the most pressing public health concern in encampments, other than the public health concern that is homelessness,” Owczarek said. 

In May, service providers noticed that the city-contracted company servicing the portalets, United Rentals, had been shoveling solid waste directly onto the sidewalk, dumping piles of fecal-covered debris inside the encampments. 

As this was occurring, Taylor Diles, environmental health officer for the New Orleans Health Department, contacted Owczarek and Eva Sohl of the Harry Tompson Center to warn them of a suspected case of Clostridiodies Difficile, or C Diff, a severe infection spread through fecal matter, in the encampment. Diles told Owczarek and Sohl in an email that they should encourage unhoused people to wash their hands with soap and water. It is unclear how unhoused people are meant to access soap and running water.

Two months later, Diles told Sohl and Owczarek they were “in the process of procuring materials necessary to install garbage cans.”

Weeks later — after the issue was raised publicly in a City Council Quality of Life Committee meeting — trash cans appeared, chained to the portalets. This is the stopgap solution that took three months.

“It’s shocking, the incredibly low standard of service provision we’re working with,” Sohl said. “It’s impossible to maintain your health if you don’t have stable housing.”

Dying preventable deaths

These needs — housing, clean water, sanitation —  are all the more pressing in the midst of a deadly heat emergency.

There have been at least 25 heat-related deaths in the state so far this year. In New Orleans, the number includes at least three unhoused people. Unsheltered residents who can’t escape the heat report struggling with the various symptoms of heat illness: fatigue, muscle cramps, headaches, vomiting and confusion.

Yet even as the city issued an emergency declaration, it was expending resources to further displace unhoused residents. On Aug. 8, the day the emergency was declared, Strohsal said, the city conducted “pretty aggressive sweeps,” throwing away at least two community members’ tents and belongings.

Yannick’s tent was one of those destroyed by the city. He was then forced to sleep exposed outside by a pillar.

The same day, two unhoused New Orleanians died: Brad Hopper, 43,  and Robin Metcalf, 54.

Hopper’s friends and houseless neighbors remember him as attentive and generous. While his manner of death is under investigation according to the Coroner’s Office, Strohsal said that Hopper had health issues and struggled to obtain medical supplies. He recalled Hopper struggling to find a medical supplier who would accept Medicaid. 

Unpaid volunteers and street medics regularly attend to the unmet health needs of our displaced neighbors, because state support is insufficient. Strohsal reports a month-long wait for appointments at the Healthcare for the Homeless clinic. Travelers Aid worker Taylor Balkissoon reported that no medical shelter is currently available for her ailing client, because every medical bed at the Low-Barrier Shelter is full.

Food waste, however, has not arisen as a pressing health concern.

According to the coroner, there have been 31 deaths since June 1 where the decedent was marked as homeless — meaning that, on average, an unhoused New Orleanian has died every 2.7 days this summer. 

Of those, only 11 have a cause of death listed. One is listed as endocarditis — inflammation of the heart, a condition typically treatable with antibiotics. 

Recently, signs planted outside City Hall displayed the names of 162 people who died due to lack of housing in New Orleans since 2020. Their stories are often the stories of elderly and/or disabled native Louisianans who have died preventable deaths.

More funding for housing vouchers, stronger tenant protections, or a ban on source of income discrimination — these would be effective uses of political power in defense of our unshelterd neighbors.

‘Petty negative energy’

The city has recently contracted with Clutch Consulting, housing consultants who profess a housing-first approach. And as the conversation around houselessness heats up, Louisiana state Rep. Alonzo Knox, a Democrat from New Orleans, has voiced support for reactive measures over housing solutions.

In recent emails about homelessness to fellow legislators and business-owners, Knox repeatedly bemoaned that he and his wife’s car windows have been broken, apparently blaming this on unhoused people.

Several times, Knox emphasized his qualifications due to previous positions — and because, as a former Marine, he “lived outside” for months during combat. But he was dismissive of the objections of multiple constituents with lived experience of homelessness, including Y. Frank Southall, a dedicated champion of affordable housing with Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative. To Southall, who called for affordable housing and support services, Knox replied: “Reality check: we can’t get everything we want and when we want it.”

To a constituent who accused him of cruelty over email, Knox replied: “You clearly do not know and/or understand the unhoused population.” Knox’s stance seems to be that our houseless neighbors are culpable for their own poverty. He decries the housing-first approach as “failed policy,” because it doesn’t “hold the unhoused accountable.”

The reality, of course, is that years of evidence overwhelmingly demonstrate that housing-first policies lead to a quicker exit from homelessness and greater housing stability over time. 

Knox also made allegations of “an orchestrated effort to bring out-of-state housing advocates” to the Quality of Life meeting from Minnesota, apparently based on the statement of one housing advocate who hails from Minnesota.

“We heard from dozens of local residents who were appalled by the proposed ordinance,” said Jack Reno Sweeney of the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America in response. “To disregard the opinions of locals as those of ‘outsiders’ because they disagree with misguided elected officials is insulting and, frankly, pathetic.”

These tough-on-homelessness attitudes from local leaders also risk contributing to a rise in violence against houseless people. Unhoused people are in fact far more likely to be the victims of a violent crime than the perpetrators.

During the past year, housed people have attacked houseless people in New Orleans with smoke grenades, fireworks, and guns. Strohsal recalls helping one unhoused gentleman after “somebody threw a big firework and it blew a hole in his ankle.”

When contacted for comment,  Knox protested that this column was an attempt to “‘cancel’ anyone who dares express an opinion” about homeless policy that is in any way different from advocates’. 

He stated he supports housing solutions rather than punishment — but also reiterated that he “will continue to call for the arrest of the criminal element that’s embedded within unhoused encampments,” saying it is “disgusting” to object to such efforts, and said his stance is that unhoused people “be held “accountable” for seeking treatment” and employment. 

Knox also reiterated his belief that a group had traveled here from Minnesota explicitly to subvert the will of the public at the Quality of Life meeting (a “disgusting show”). Knox bemoaned housing advocates who “support a ‘homeless industrial complex’” and their “petty negative energy.” 

Knox copied more than 80 people in his reply, including leaders in the Louisiana State Police, NOPD, GOHSEP, Homeland Security, and the heads of various neighborhood associations.

Knox, Green, and others claim that local housing advocates don’t understand the realities of homelessness as they do. But the view I present here has been shaped by two years as a volunteer street-level organizer with Southern Solidarity. I and dozens of other volunteers, spurred by the inaction of the state and by our collective love for the most vulnerable New Orleanians, have spent hundreds of hours providing the kind of social services the city should’ve been rendering at sufficient scale — not only delivering meals and hygiene items, but driving people to get IDs, to the hospital, helping them obtain SNAP benefits, signing them up for Medicaid, bringing people tents when the city had trashed their shelters, helping people contact family members, moving them into new homes, talking them through crises. 

We didn’t encounter Knox’s “embedded criminal element.” We found people who are working hard to survive.

Now is the time to challenge legislators comfortable with their righteousness on homelessness. Several of my own unhoused friends have died in the last year: Cornell Williams, who grew up on Music Street, died last summer after spending years unhoused. I miss him. I hope whoever reads this remembers his name. He deserves to be here. He wouldn’t have benefited from Knox’s “tough love” — he would’ve benefited from housing.

Ultimately, this is not a question of eyesores, nor broken car windows. It is a question of human life and dignity. The only solution to homelessness is housing. Not fences, not arrests, not mace or fines or sweeps: housing solves homelessness. 

A real solution would require building and investing in public housing with supportive social services, expanding protection for renters (including rent control and a tenant bill of rights), reparations for communities of color who have been stripped of their wealth due to a legacy of racist housing policies, and ultimately an end to the commodification of housing. These are practical demands.

Nobody wants to witness human suffering. The solution is to address the suffering — not to punish the suffering for their visibility.

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Delaney Nolan is a freelance writer, whose work focuses on climate and the environment, housing and displacement, and where these issues intersect. Her writing has appeared in Al Jazeera English, Mother...