New Orleans seeks to address chronic homeless problem

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wwltv.com

Posted on September 30, 2011 at 6:19 PM

Updated Friday, Sep 30 at 6:22 PM

Maya Rodriguez / Eyewitness News

NEW ORLEANS -- Under the Pontchartrain Expressway, Rebecca Smith Lodge keeps her few possessions close at hand. She has been living there for the past two months, holding onto a picture of her daughter Mabel, now under the care of social services.

"It can be kind of stressful if you don't know how to handle it," she said.

Smith Lodge is part of a growing number of homeless now living in the open parking lots under the overpass.

"There really is no designated area where they can go. We have a lot of organizations and individuals who come in and feed them there -- and as long as they continue to feed them and drop off supplies, they're going to stay there," said Ron Gonzales, executive director of the nearby New Orleans Mission, which provides services for the homeless.

Gonzales said a tough economy may be part of the reason people have begun congregating under the overpass. By far, though, most homeless advocates believe the biggest problem facing the people living there is a lack of services for mental health issues.

There are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 people who are chronically homeless in the city and limited resources for agencies that can help. Now, however, the city is in the midst of finalizing a plan, which would provide a road map to address the issues of the homeless.

"One of the major focuses of our plan is to begin to tie together the agencies whose expertise is in working with the mentally ill, pairing them together with housing agencies, in order to provide consistent, qualified mental health services to the people we are putting into housing," said Stacy Horn Koch, director of neighborhood services, facilities and homeless policy for the City of New Orleans.

For her part, Smith Lodge admits she needs help and medication to try and get her life back on track -- and she hopes to one day be reunited with her daughter.

"I don't know for sure what's going to happen," she said. "I just wait on faith."

The Crescent City Connection Police Department oversees the area under the expressway. A spokesperson tells Eyewitness News that since the area does not have a "No Trespassing" ordinance, they can not arrest the homeless who are there.

In the long-term, they are considering fencing off the area to prevent the people from staying there. In the short term, they said maintenance crews clean up the area once a week.

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