Jullian Jefferson has been living on the street for three years. On Wednesday (Nov. 15), his tent was set up under the Pontchartrain Expressway overpass, in a row of other makeshift shelters that have formed one of the city’s biggest homeless encampments.
Jefferson and those remaining at the camp are worried they will have nowhere to go after Friday morning, when the city is scheduled to close the Tchoupitoulas encampment.
Jefferson, 34, said he feels safer living in a group than out on his own. He’s not sure what his plan is on Friday.
“Where else is there really to go where you’re not going to get harassed or told to move?” Jefferson said Wednesday, as the closure loomed. “It’s the closest thing we’ve got to a family.”
On Friday, the city will clear out and fence off the Tchoupitoulas encampment, the first in an effort to shut down encampments across the city and transition residents into long-term housing.
According to UNITY of Greater New Orleans, one of the nonprofits leading the effort, 27 people have been housed from the encampment since early October. The Tchoupitoulas encampment at one point had as many as 50 people, after the city’s homeless population grew by half in the previous year.
The Mayor’s Office and the city’s Office of Homeless Services did not respond to requests for comment for this story by publication time.
Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY, is worried about the consequences of fencing off the encampment without finding housing for all of its residents.
“That is a primary weakness in the process used in this camp,” Kegel said. “That some people have to move when the city closes the camp without being given housing. In my opinion, that is definitely something to be considered for the future.”
The city has contracted Texas-based firm Clutch Consulting, which has coordinated similar efforts in Chicago and Oklahoma City, along with nonprofits UNITY and Travelers Aid Society to house residents.
The effort is being funded by a $1.1 million grant from the Louisiana Housing Corporation and some COVID-era emergency rental assistance money. UNITY is still awaiting the release of a $15 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, expected in January, that will fund a citywide push to house approximately 420 people over the course of a year.
Kegel said that UNITY and the agencies involved worked to place encampment residents on a list, prioritizing those who have been living under the Pontchartrain Expressway the longest.
Jefferson, along with another resident named Xan Adams, told a reporter Wednesday that they had not been offered housing.
Adams said they have been living in the encampment for over a year, and are not sure what their next move is when the city clears the area on Friday. Adams said they have spoken with Travellers Aid and UNITY but are unsure of their status on the housing waitlist.
Other residents like Richard Raffle have been at the encampment for less time. However, Raffle, 57, said he is in a desperate situation.
Raffle said he was unable to get workers’ compensation after suffering a work-related injury in March, and now uses a wheelchair and sleeps on the ground with a shattered hip. “I lost everything,” Raffle said.
On Friday, Raffle will have to move his belongings from the Tchoupitoulas encampment or face fines for trespassing, according to notices posted at the site.
“It’s an eyesore, I don’t blame them,” Raffle said. “But goddamn, some of us don’t have the choice of where to live.”
The strip of muddied space under the Pontchartrain Expressway is scheduled for development as part of the River District project, as a spokesperson for Councilmember Lesli Harris confirmed this week. Harris, whose district includes the encampment, chairs the council’s Quality of Life committee. In a statement, a spokesperson for her office said the effort to close the encampment prioritizes those who live there “by connecting them with housing and individual services.”
“Together, we wanted to ensure the unhoused community living at that location were and will be provided with services rather than be pushed out,” the statement reads.
By Friday morning, a handful of remaining encampment residents and busy aid workers were still gathering up belongings to move off-site.
Jefferson still had no plan in place. He contemplated camping on South Claiborne Avenue, though he thought it could be dangerous for him there.
In the meantime, he was moving his possessions — a bicycle with a trailer, a trike with a cart containing his clothes, recording equipment and art supplies — to a friend’s building in the 7th Ward.
Before he left, he spray-painted a message on one of the concrete pilings supporting the expressway: “Mayor, where? Do we go from here?!”
This story has been updated to include additional comments from Jullian Jefferson.
Bobbi-Jeanne Misick contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the recipient of a $15 million grant; UNITY is the grant recipient, not the city. The estimated count of people at the Tchoupitoulas encampment has also been corrected to 50 per UNITY’s count, not 150.
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