Friday, December 21, 2007

Assignment NOLA:
'Tent city' destroyed; homeless soldier on

tentintotruck0262A New Orleans city Department of Sanitation worker lifts a tent into a dump truck after clearing in from Duncan Plaza in front of City Hall. About 250 homeless people were displaced when the city pushed everyone out of the plaza to allow the demolition of two buildings near the city property. Some were placed in temporary hotels or apartments, but others were forced to live elsewhere on the street.

The Battle of Bunker Hill was a crucial point for Americans in the Revolutionary War and in Great Britain's occupation of Boston. The city of Boston's Web site describes it like this: "The poorly trained and ill prepared colonial forces repelled two major assaults by the British Army before retreating. Almost half of the British soldiers were either killed or injured. Although the colonists lost the battle, their bravery and strong showing against the British encouraged them to fight on."

On Wednesday, the first night of my stay in New Orleans, Larry Jones, 35, told me he was living in a tent on "Bunker Hill" in the shadow of City Hall. Or at least I thought he said "Bunker Hill." I didn't write it in the posting about Jones (Victim now a clever deal maker on Bourbon Street) because I didn't see that title show up in any media report. And I didn't trust my ears. So I left it out.

But why would I trust the media instead of my ears?

On Friday, I understood the name's significance. About 250 homeless people, many of them displaced after Hurricane Katrina ravaged their houses or apartment buildings, were again forced out, this time by City Hall itself. Jones and the other approximately 249 people were living (past tense) in tents in Duncan Plaza (see below for satellite view). In the center of the plaza is a gazebo, prime real estate because of the roof. It was full of squatters - some with tents, some without. Next to the gazebo is a small hill, the highest point of the plaza. That's where Jones had set up camp.

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But by late Friday afternoon, all 250 were gone. In preparation to raze and replace two buildings near the plaza, the city had to move the humans out of harm's way. Friday was the deadline. A group called UNITY of Greater New Orleans found hotel rooms for some of them.

It has been a tumultuous two days for these people and others like them who have been in constant limbo when it comes to a living situation. The city's homeless population doubled to almost 12,000 after Hurricane Katrina. That is due to many factors: higher cost of living, loss of everything in the flood, no insurance, denial of insurance, denial of FEMA aid, low wages (in New Orleans, for many, homelessness doesn't necessarily entail joblessness).

On Thursday, the City Council approved the razing of Katrina-damaged public housing units throughout the city. A few people who violently protested the move inside and outside City Hall were hit with a Taser, tackled by police and arrested.

On Friday, the homeless tent inhabitants were kicked out. Bunker Hill was their last stand. They used this geographical high ground to make a point that they were on moral high ground, that the city should do more to help the people left homeless after the hurricane. Their statement made newspapers nationwide and riled lawmakers, but in the end, they were forced to move.

They may have lost the battle, but the war is not over, several told me Friday (see comments of Mr. "Magnificent" below).

And it's not as though these people packed everything up and left. It's more like this: They just got up and left, leaving everything behind, including:

A pair of shoes, above, next to a flagpole, which was flying at half-staff;

A purse with credit cards that was discovered by New Orleans police officer B.B. St. Roman, above, of the Homeless Assistance Unit;

And a Bible, above, on the edge of the gazebo's foundation. It was opened to the book of John, Chapter 6, "The Feeding of the Five Thousand," in which Jesus Christ miraculously takes five loaves of bread and two fish, multiplies them and feeds the multitude of hungry. It reads, "When they were satisfied, he said to his disciples, Gather the fragments that remain, that nothing may be lost."

City Department of Sanitation workers scoured the plaza for leftover fragments. They hauled out mattress after mattress, above, and threw them into a garbage truck, which compacted them.

Apples, oranges and four-packs of pecan muffins were scooped up with gloved hands, above, and thrown into trash bins.

N.O.P.D. officer Sam Scaffidi of the Homeless Assistance Unit checked tents for stragglers, tugging on the ones that were padlocked, hoping to rouse anyone inside, above. Some former tent city occupants returned while Scaffidi was making his rounds. One man said he accidentally left a green sleeping bag, and he wanted it back. But apparently, it already had been swept into the dumpster. The man was OK about it.

"Thank you, sir," he told Scaffidi.

"Call me Sam," the officer said. "Call me Sam."

For the former tent city occupants who were not fortunate enough to be placed in a hotel, they simply packed up and moved their tents and their belongings to a new site. A new tent city has formed beneath an Interstate 10 overpass, above, several blocks to the north of the original community at City Hall.

I-10, as I have mentioned before, was the exit route for thousands of Katrina survivors, mostly blacks, who didn't want to wait days for buses and were too poor to own a car to drive themselves out. They walked out of New Orleans. Above, an I-10 sign bears a sticker that says, "WAKE UP WHITE PEOPLE."

As I talked with a man late Friday afternoon about why I felt the need to photograph the homeless under the overpass, Ronald "Magnificent" Major, 30, rode through the new tent city on his electric wheelchair. Major said he isn't homeless but hangs out with people who are homeless. He lives in a FEMA trailer, he said.

He spoke openly about how he had been homeless until he was hit by a car, left in a coma for months and never fully recovered. But the accident changed him. He began to see things differently. He began to see that there was more to life than liquor and cocaine. He stopped using the cocaine and only drinks occasionally, he said. "But everyone does that."

Major wishes his attitude would rub off onto city, state and federal officials. He has been an outspoken member of the protest groups that have decried what they call the city's failure to recognize the needs of the poor and homeless. As I interviewed him under the overpass, he rattled off a poem he made up (as we spoke) titled "Under the Bridge."

He said, in part, "Now, they (government officials) come, speaking our rights away, telling us we don't belong here, and they don't have a place for us to go. ... But with God up above, we know we're coming out of this. And when we do, we'll be standing up, proud."

But, he said later, "when it's over, they (government officials) are going to feel bad about it."

When almost everything had been cleared from the plaza at City Hall, only one thing remained: a 5-foot artificial Christmas tree that had been erected and decorated at the north end of the plaza, away from the City Hall side. Sanitation workers picked up the tree, but they didn't toss it into a compactor. They moved it and set it down in the middle of the gazebo floor, where it would be safe from the weather. Hanging from its branches were dozens of shiny ornaments, above, with words painted on their faces. The ornaments said, "A tree without a home."

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