NEW ORLEANS — City workers wearing gloves — and a few in face masks — threw sofas, armchairs and quilts into garbage trucks today, clearing out a homeless encampment of about 160 people. Officials said it attracted rats and called it a public health hazard.
By the end of rush hour, an area underneath an overpass less than a mile from the Superdome, where the NFL’s New Orleans Saints play, was empty of tents, clothes, cardboard boxes and other items. Workers hosed down the concrete.
City officials gave the homeless about 2 1/2 days of notice and said there were enough beds in shelters. Most of them went to a shelter, but some didn’t.
“I have no desire, no inclination, to live in there with a hundred men,” Billy Holmes said, gesturing to the nearby New Orleans Mission. He said he had been living under the highway for more than a month after he damaged a disk in his neck in June, ending his construction work.
Holmes said the city wanted the encampment cleared because it looks bad to tourists — the city’s biggest business — and because the Saints have their first preseason home game Friday.
“In my opinion, the football season takes precedence. They want to clear it out for tailgating and parking,” Holmes said.
The area has been cleared of homeless people periodically over the years three years, including in late 2012 before the Super Bowl.
The mission took in 32 people early today, bringing its population to about 232, said director David Bottner.
Whatever the city’s reason and timing, he said: “I think it’s a wonderful idea that you would ask people to go and receive the help that they need to begin to get on the path that God has created you for.”
Dwayne Williams, 46, sat on one of his six bags, ranging from a duffel to a plastic one tied to a cord around his neck.
Matt Anderson, a freelance photographer before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, rode up on a bicycle and tried to convince Williams to see a counselor from Unity of Greater New Orleans, a coalition of 60 agencies working for the homeless.
“Unity fixed me up four years ago, when I was living in an abandoned building,” he told Williams. “They climbed a fence to get to me. I came through Unity and I’ve got a place to live.”
Williams didn’t want to listen, but Anderson left with information about him, which he planned to pass on to a Unity case worker.
About 20 minutes later, a car pulled up. Williams put his duffel into the trunk.
“I told Mr. Williams I was going to find a way to bring him home and stay with us,” said Jack Tucker, who was in the front passenger seat.
The city’s health director, Charlotte Parent, said the area was closed because trash and filth attracted rats, and the city couldn’t get it scrubbed and put out rat poison with the homeless there.
A day before the sweep, Robert Daniels sat on two milk crates outside a large maroon-and-white tent someone gave him while he was panhandling last week. Big chunks of concrete anchored the tent’s ropes.
“They had rats before we came around. Bourbon Street has got a whole lot of rats,” he said. The city’s famed street in the heart of the French Quarter attracts millions of tourists each year.
“Wherever you’ve got trash, you’ve got a whole lot of rats. This ain’t going to change that,” Daniels said.