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Talking to Homeless People in New Orleans
There are nearly 1,500 homeless people in and around New Orleans, a number that has risen back to pre-pandemic levels as Covid-era government aid programs wind down. The city’s biggest homeless encampment is strewn through various corners over the concrete maze where the I-90 overpass crosses Tchoupitoulas Street, not far from the Convention Center. Tourists strolling from the Lower Garden District over to the WW2 museum pass within blocks of it.
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Thomas is originally from Tennessee. He’s been in New Orleans for two months. For the past month and a half, he’s been living in a tent up against the wall of the highway exit ramp. He was sitting there on a scavenged chair with a friend, listening to country music on a portable radio.
“It’s kind of fucked up, somewhat. If you have somebody OD, like down there”—he nods towards a warren of tents around the corner—“it just happens. But I always feel safe.
“I’m actually trying to get myself a place here, housing. It’s been hard. It depends how you do it. Sometimes you get it real quick, sometimes it takes months. They come out here with food, but I have to watch what I eat, because I have a mechanical heart valve. I haven’t tried to get health care yet, but I’m actually gonna work on that.
“I know most people that stay right around here.” He indicates the surrounding tents. A few years ago, the encampments were farther up Calliope Street, completely under the overpass, but they have migrated down towards the river now, so that some are exposed to the rain. “They started blocking off the overpasses and they just moved this way. As long as you keep it level, cops don’t bother us.
“What we need out here? Proper food, medicines. I love New Orleans. I originally came here because of Katrina. I started working here, and I’m still around. Cleanup, construction, anything I could do. I’ve done very extensive work on treating water and stuff like that. I’m trying to get a job. Every time I applied for anything lately, I haven’t got it. I hustle, like that person down there on that median. That’s how I make my money.
“I’ve actually stayed in a place that was like this in Portland, Oregon. That ended really bad for me. And I stayed in a place kinda like this in L.A. That ended bad. When you’re gone, they come and knock your shit down. But not here. They knocked down his shelter he had built”—he points to a bare, pitted square of dirt right next to his spot, where his friend used to stay—“but other than that, as long as it’s a tent, and it’s right here, you’re good.”
Lizzie, a 30-something woman with short brown hair, is the person who is hustling on the median. She sits on a folding chair, legs crossed, fidgeting and smoking a cigarette down to the nub, holding a small cardboard sign soliciting donations from the passing traffic. She moved to New Orleans from Northern Louisiana two years ago, after losing her housing up there. She doesn’t want her picture taken.
“I would like to go to Winston-Salem North Carolina. My aunt lives up that way. Here it’s just my husband and my fiancee.” She smiles and shrugs off questions about the origin of the throuple. “We do our own thing. We got kicked out of my husband’s cousin’s trailer due to personal issues.
“Do I feel safe? Sometimes. I’ve had a couple of close calls. My fears are getting hurt. Being a woman you don’t know. And my husband and my fiancee work.
“We mostly stay to ourselves. We just hang out, chill out. Some men don’t know how to mind their business. I try to be nice. I’ve been raped, I’ve been shot at in New Orleans. My husband, he’s got PTSD, and he’s got oppositional defiance disorder. Dealing with that is not easy. We both have Medicaid.
“Sometimes we move around and sometimes we don’t. Our biggest thing is our tent got caught on fire last year and then again this year, right over there. So our big thing is getting a tent, and getting a blanket, just trying to get stable. We weren’t home, and somebody just… people do crazy things, every damn day.
“I did apply for permanent housing, but it fluctuates. It’s an up and down situation. It’s not just me—it’s me and two other men. It’s not just about me. It’s that you have to accommodate as a family, a group. You don’t just make a decision like that alone.
“Sometimes I earn enough money out here. It depends. Both of my men work, so I kinda just do this to get me through the day. Right now there’s no 18 wheelers, there’s no semi trucks. So the chances of you getting paid by a car versus an 18 wheeler—you get paid by more truckers. Most of the time.” A short way down Tchoupitoulas is where cargo trucks enter the busy Port of New Orleans. “It depends on their day, it depends how it goes at the port. I don’t know why.”
The homelessness crisis in American cities, particularly since the pandemic, is quite severe. Here is a story I did in 2020 about an incredibly well-organized homeless encampment in Philly. More on this in the future.
Unity is a well respected nonprofit that you can donate to to help the homeless in New Orleans. The New Orleans Times-Picayune is a great local paper that covers the issue regularly too. Highly recommend reading this paper no matter where you live.
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