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New Orleans Braces For Surge Of Evictions, Homelessness

 Melissa Harvey outside her tent in New Orleans. July 2021.
Ryan Nelsen
Melissa Harvey outside her tent in New Orleans. July 2021.

Melissa Harvey stood next to her tent Friday in the shade of the Pontchartrain Expressway and fanned herself with a newspaper. It was 88 degrees outside but felt closer to 110 with the humidity.

She and her husband relocated to New Orleans after a pair of hurricanes destroyed their home in Lake Charles.

Like many of the unhoused in New Orleans, Harvey wants no part of a homeless shelter. She prefers her tent and the patch of grass under the highway, which she keeps tidy with a lawn mower. Plus, the city even placed portable toilets and handwashing stations near her tent.

"Where I'm from, the homeless go out and pitch tents in the woods, to be not seen. And the cops go in there and cut up and tear up their stuff,” said Harvey, referring to her experience in Lake Charles.

Officials in New Orleans say they’re bracing for another wave of unhoused people like Harvey.

At the end of July, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium will end, allowing landlords to start the eviction process with tenants behind on rent. And starting in August, Louisiana joins the list of states no longer offering the federal $300-a-week unemployment benefit. (Gov. John Bel Edwards agreed to end the benefit in exchange for a $28 increase in the state’s weekly unemployment payment.)

"There is a lot of concern and uncertainty as to what's going to happen when the eviction moratorium comes off," said Dr. Jennifer Avegno, Director of the New Orleans Health Department, during a recent meeting. "I think we are all bracing for the fact that it will."

The city’s rental assistance program — set up to alleviate residents struggling to pay rent during the pandemic — has been overwhelmed by requests. The program's first 5,000 applicants should have received assistance by last week, the city said in a press release, but over 14,800 have signed up for the program.

Local homeless shelters have begun to prepare for a surge in numbers, but the city's health department has found that unhoused residents often don't get the help they need at local shelters.

The Ozanam Inn, which has provided housing and charity services in the city since 1955, has over 90 beds for men in need, but is near capacity heading toward August. The non-profit is hoping to expand its services to include overnight stays for women when it moves to a new home on 2239 Poydras Street in the next few months, said CEO Clarence Adams on Louisiana Considered, Monday.

"We're anticipating that we'll see a lot of people that have never been homeless. This will be their first time or experience on their own, through no fault of their own from not being able to pay rent because they don't have any income," said Renee Blanche, the Director of Development at Ozanam.

The city government is also expanding its low-barrier shelter, which is favored by some of New Orleans' unhoused population because people can sleep next to a significant other, bring in a pet and store your belongings overnight.

But since the low-barrier shelter is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, city officials are unable to change its status to an emergency shelter, meaning only individuals unhoused for over a year are eligible to stay there. Avengo says this does not deter the shelter from being full every night.

A recent survey conducted by the New Orleans Health Department found that 80% of the unhoused population in the city do not want to stay in a shelter.

Charles Randolph, 68, has had bad experiences in New Orleans homeless shelters, including having his EBT Card and Debit Card taken away from him, but has found a new start at Ozanam Inn.

Randolph began staying and working at Ozanam in June. While the program requires workers to submit 80% of their paychecks into an in-house savings account, Randolph places all of his money into the account.

Randolph claims that he could qualify for housing right now, but the only thing he could afford after moving in was a Strawberry Big Shot, to drink

Randolph says he plans on moving out in January with an estimated $8,000 to spend on an apartment and furniture.

Melissa Harvey, the former Lake Charles resident whose home was destroyed by hurricanes, says she hopes to find affordable housing soon but hopes the city continues to clean underneath the bridge and provide food.

While the city has a new policy to clean out encampments and power wash underneath them to push out any rodents, Harvey says the city has not bothered her because she stays on the grass and keeps her things tidy.

And with more and more people expected to be forced out of their homes in the coming weeks, it’s likely many will seek shelter on the streets, in homeless shelters and in tent encampments along the city’s highways.

There are few answers to the growing affordable housing and homelessness crisis, except to keep looking for help.

In a press release Tuesday, Gov. Edwards urged struggling renters and landlords to apply for assistance before the moratorium ends on July 31.

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio

Ryan Nelsen