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Homeless People, Occupy NOLA Protesters Converge at Duncan Plaza
Last week at Occupy NOLA, more people from around the country arrived at Duncan Plaza in steady numbers. And, as the tent city bustled with more people opposing the makeup of the country's financial structure, an influx of the faces that slip through the cracks of a capitalist system arrived at the Plaza, which is an old stomping ground, as well.
On Thursday, the city permanently shut down the area beneath the Pontchartrain Expressway near Calliope and Baronne Street, where the homeless often took shelter. The area was just one of the city's many makeshift homeless encampments since the federal flood. The largest tent setup was underneath the I-10 overpass on N. Claiborne Ave. But before that spot existed, many homeless were living in Duncan Plaza, where they drew both symbolic and vocal attention to the city's post-K homeless population, which nearly doubled in the wake of the levee failures. Former Mayor C. Ray Nagin cleared that encampment in late 2007 to make way for the demolition of a couple buildings . As it happened, the NBA All-Star game and Mardi Gras were just around the corner on the city's calendar. But now there is a new mayor, and a new tent city already present in Duncan Plaza.
While the Mayor’s office heralded the shutdown of the Calliope site as part of the administration's promise to reduce homelessness in New Orleans, one Occupant sees more of a circular motion.
“All it does is reshuffle the homeless around the city," he said. "Now they’re coming back to Duncan Plaza.”
In a press release, the City claims to have housed about 100 of the homeless people formerly living under the Pontchartrain Expressway last week. Approximately 85 homeless people were moved into respite housing to await admission to permanent supportive housing, 20 were placed in shelters, and 10 were sent on buses to be reunitied with family or friends in other cities.
In a report released over the summer by UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a non-profit set to end homelessness in New Orleans, there are more than 9,000 persons meeting the HUD definition of homelessness in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish on any given night. Two days before Mayor Landrieu’s orders, UNITY sent out an “urgent call to action” for those living under the overpass (You can donate to UNITY by clicking here.). When Duncan Plaza wsa cleared in 2007, the homeless population was hovering around 12,000.
Occupiers and homeless people would seem to fall in natural solidarity. What better face is there for a movement that says too little people control too much of the wealth?
Bill, an older homeless man from Chicago that now lives his life by, “If I can get a cup of coffee in the morning, then it’s a good day to me,” has lived in Duncan Plaza for three weeks. Before living in Duncan Plaza, Bill slept among other homeless living under the I-10 on Claiborne near Canal St. until that encampment was shut down in July. Though Bill watched the City help almost 300 homeless people relocate to shelters during the shutdown in July, he had to relocate to other streets throughout the city to make his home.
“It’s a shame there’s still so many abandoned buildings in New Orleans,” he said. He thinks Duncan Plaza is now the safest place for him to take refuge because the Occupants keep watch around him. He finds his own food, and goes out every day looking for work through the Labor Department, or even offering to help people maintain their yards.
“There’s a big cry for tents, especially since winter is coming,” he said with a worn voice. Bill also believes in the Occupy movement, and attends every General Assembly.
But the coexistence between the homeless people and protesters has not always been peaceful. In the first two weeks since the Occupy NOLA movement began on October 6, theft occurred within the camp most nights. The nightly parliament formed a security patrol to keep a night’s watch, but accusations that the security patrol became power hungry lead to a camp-wide practice of self-awareness, which dramatically reduced theft in the last two weeks
“There are more eyes around the camp at all hours,” a veteran named Bobby said.
One Occupant, who denied to give his name, said it is the homeless to blame for theft. “They hang around the camp by day, and steal from the communal pantry at night.” Opening his coat to reveal a hunting knife, the Occupant said he has taken matters into his own hands. “If I catch any of them stealing something from my tent, I’ll cut their hand off. Won’t be the first time, and won’t be the last.”
Two young women who have been at the camp since Day 1, who go as Possimist and Iris, noticed an influx of the City’s homeless coming to Duncan Plaza after the area under the Expressway was shutdown last week. Over Halloween weekend, many “travelling kids” arrived to the camp as well, the pair said. Possimist and Iris believe the “self-proclaimed crusty kids” are here to party, not to protest. The Occupation movement as a whole, the two believe, have given travelling kids havens to squat around the country. “They probably won’t stay long,” Iris said.
Iris related the influx of travelling kids in Duncan Plaza to the deterioration of other encampment-style protests in recent years. She said there must be a balance of people who bring food and supplies, and those who come with nothing but are willing to work in order for the society to function. Over recent years, however, there have been an influx of travelling kids to the Rainbow Gathering that do not bring anything, and are not willing to work, Iris said.
Though they do not contribute to the work that needs to be done in the Occupation, Iris said the travelling kids did bring a coincidental benefit to Duncan Plaza. “They’re louder and take up more room, so I think they scared off a lot of the homeless,” Iris said.
Peter, a veteran from Baton Rouge that always wears an “I Love Jesus” hat, has been with the Occupy NOLA movement for the last three weeks, and has become disheartened by the theft that the homeless brings to the camp that he said he has witnessed. Peter stopped volunteering to protect the communal pantry because he believes theft got out of hand in the first two weeks, and now finds food for himself. He also stopped eating from the camp’s kitchen because, as a Cajun, he believes jambalaya without sausage is “sacrilegious.”
While he fends for himself now, Peter believes there should be more social services for the homeless in New Orleans, like the New Orleans Mission. Two weeks ago, the New Orleans Mission, located a block away from the overpass on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., launched “Make A Move”, the largest public assistance event for the homeless in New Orleans’ history. Gathered in the Convention Center, professionals provided a range of services for the homeless, including medical checkups, foot care, legal services, grooming, and employment assistance. About 1,000 people participated, organizer Sean Walker stated.
Earlier this year, Mayor Landrieu signed an executive order establishing the Homeless Services Working Group – an official Mayoral Advisory Committee – tasked with developing systemic solutions to ending homelessness in New Orleans. The Group is expected to deliver a report to Mayor Landrieu in the coming weeks.
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