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New Orleans working to get homeless off the streets during COVID-19 crisis

Some of the homeless who have gone to the hospital with symptoms have been isolated at Bayou Segnette State Park.

NEW ORLEANS — State and local officials are scrambling to move homeless people out of encampments where they fear coronavirus will spread quickly.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration said it’s working with the state to find housing for 90 to 120 homeless people, a population that homeless service groups say is the population of one of the large camps in downtown New Orleans – the one under the Pontchartrain Expressway on Calliope Street or another under the Interstate-10 on North Claiborne Avenue.

"The Cantrell Administration recognizes the urgent need to protect our city's most vulnerable populations from the rapid spread of COVID-19, chief among them are the homeless,” a city spokesman said Monday. “While our plan is still being finalized, we hope to have more information to share in the coming days."

Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, said there are about 1,200 homeless people living in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish, with the latest surveys estimating that 430 of them live on the streets.

She said the coronavirus has caused a lot of the private groups that bring food and water to the homeless camps to stay away, out of fear of infection.

“There are a few programs still open feeding people, but most of the feeding of the homeless has stopped,” Kegel said. “It was dependent on private individuals coming under the bridge, it was dependent on private groups that have had to shut down out of concerns for their staff and the spread of the disease. So, literally, people can’t get food or water in a lot of cases.”

Some of the homeless who have gone to the hospital with symptoms have been isolated at Bayou Segnette State Park. If they test negative for coronavirus they are being moved into hotels.

But hundreds remain in encampments and Kegel says authorities need to move quickly to get more people into hotels.

“They're in camps, they're crowded together,” she said. “You could easily have the virus sweep through the camps. And it's just a terrible situation, both for the number of homeless people affected but also just swamping the ICUs.”

Public libraries and other government buildings were places for homeless folks to use the bathroom, but now that public buildings are closed down that's no longer an option, Kegel said.

The city did place two portable toilets at Claiborne and Iberville on Monday to help the folks in that large camp.

But Kegel said that's not nearly enough, and getting people off the street and into hotels is critical. She said they did it after Hurricane Katrina and the situation is even more dire now.

“We really need to get each person off the street altogether into low-cost hotels where each has a private area to avoid catching or spreading this virus, a real bed to sleep adequately and a real bathroom where they can actually wash their hands with soap and water,” she said. “We did this after Hurricane Katrina for 480 people, 280 from Duncan Plaza camp and 200 from the Claiborne camp. The situation was urgent then, and far, far more urgent now.”

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