NEW ORLEANS – The homeless of New Orleans have left the city's shelters and gutted buildings to set up camp on the mayor's doorstep.
About 250 homeless people have erected pup-tents — the only affordable housing they say they could find since Hurricane Katrina — and created a colony of despair in a grassy plaza outside City Hall.
Mayor Ray Nagin's second-floor office faces the camp, and its residents rally almost daily with the chant: "Hey, Ray! How about a house today!"
Nagin has not met with the group, but he said in a statement that the city "is working with numerous agencies to address the homelessness" that worsened after the hurricane.
The mayor said many of the homeless in Duncan Plaza have refused temporary shelter and rental assistance, and he is concerned about unsanitary conditions and safety.
Julius Nelson, 32, leader of a group called Homeless Pride that formed in the plaza, said shelters are overflowing and rental assistance is useless in a city where the storm destroyed most of the inexpensive apartments. He feared Nagin's statement meant the mayor would break up the camp.
"You've got people all over New Orleans sleeping in abandoned buildings, in abandoned cars, everywhere," Nelson said. "You don't have any affordable housing. People don't even go to the crowded shelters. They come straight here."
New Orleans has 12,000 homeless people, up from 6,300 before Katrina, according to UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a group that helps the homeless.
Nagin said his office of public advocacy has provided food, clothing and shelter to more than 1,000 people this year. On Thursday, he urged state officials to release rental subsidies that UNITY plans to distribute at the plaza.
Still, the encampment has grown from a half-dozen tents three months ago to more than 40 pitched on two grassy knolls. A gazebo in the plaza center is a pen for sleeping bags, cardboard and newspapers on which more homeless people sleep.
Some call it a safe haven because National Guard humvees begin their patrols from a Holiday Inn across the street. But a 39-year-old homeless man died in his tent Nov. 8 after he was beaten elsewhere the previous night and wandered back, authorities said.
"Bad things happen out here," said a 47-year-old woman who asked to be identified only as Donna. A gold ribbon tied to jesters bells hung on her tent zipper not for decoration, she said, but as an alarm after a stranger tried to enter one night.
The camp has become so hard to ignore that some observers believe it will force the mayor to take action on housing, an issue many critics say he has failed to address.
"His hand is being forced," said Sam Jackson, a member of the group Concerned Compassionate Community, one of several that brings food to the park. "The mayor can work to get these people a place to stay. Or, he could run them all out. But isn't that harsh?"
Of the 200,000 homes the hurricane destroyed, 41,000 were affordable rental units, according to estimates by the nonprofit group PolicyLink. Since the storm, fair-market rent for an efficiency apartment has risen from $463 to $764.
The storm also destroyed homeless shelters, reducing the number of beds from 832 to 232, according to UNITY.
About a third of the people in the plaza work at least part-time, but they cannot find affordable housing, UNITY said.
Katherine Scott, who stocks the camping section of a nearby Wal-Mart, said she has seen tents purchased one-by-one by people who look down on their luck.
"They've been buying them up faster than we can stock them, the sleeping bags, too. That just makes you cry," she said.
A church near the plaza offers laundry and showers to the homeless. Several groups bring regular meals. A few people living in the plaza give haircuts.
Those living in the plaza relieve themselves at fast-food restaurants, or in a row of bushes on the far end of the grounds, the smell wafting through the compound on a breezy day.
As night began to fall on the camp, Donna watched a group of people open beer cans after a day in which they did not leave the grounds.
"Around this time people start drinking. They've been fed. They don't have a reason to go out and work," she said. "But where else do they have to go?"