Housing Costs Trigger Homeless Spread

Personal Writings

            New Orleans      In New Orleans, Lucha, my Australian Shepherd, and I walk to the Mississippi River and back every morning in the predawn.  She knows the drill and has her favorites stops along the route where she likes to sniff and piddle, but both of us, now about the same age in dog and human years, like to keep the pace lively to get home to breakfast.  This is the time of year, where we’re met by lively birds rocking the trees and seeking an early feeding as well.

At the corner near the river is an Anytime Fitness.  Sometimes there are some early birds there, but other times the lot will be empty on the other side of their fence.  No staff work there, because it’s a keycard operation, central to their business model.  There’s a big warehouse next to Anytime that used to be bumping and service the maritime industry, but they closed down at the pandemic and have been trying to rent since then.  On the other side are a couple of 2nd story apartments, sometimes empty and sometimes with a light on over the years, that are part of a landscaper’s house and property.  Then ahead of us there’s the levee with the railroad track for the New Orleans Belt Line and over the floodwall, the Crescent Park.  Essentially, this is a quiet, empty street in an urban neighborhood shielded from view and relatively safe, secure, and well lit.

As we make the turn along the river, we’ve been seeing something else over the last six months that’s less comforting than bird calls.  Regularly, there are now cars parked along the side of the street opposite the apartments and across the fence from the Anytime lot.  At first, we thought someone might have stolen a vehicle and abandoned it there.  Day after day, we came to another conclusion.  Some of the cars where stuffed to the brim with all manner of things.  Through tinted windows, we would sometimes see someone sleeping while sitting behind the wheel.  On one warmer morning recently, we saw a car we had seen occasionally before with the engine running.  A guy was sleeping behind the wheel with the air conditioning on to break the heat, taking advantage of gallons of gas being cheaper that a night in a motel.  This morning, there were feet sticking out of the passenger side of an extended cab pickup, where a guy was sleeping.

Some of the cars return, and we recognize them.  Others are new and come and go.  Somehow, the word is out that for the homeless or transient workers with a truck or car, this part of our Bywater neighborhood is a good place to pull over and spend the night.  These aren’t street sleepers or cart pushers, though we saw a couple turn up nearby recently.  These are lower waged working men – and some women – who have wheels, but can’t afford a roof, either short or long term.  This is what happens as rents go up and urban neighborhoods and entire cities gentrify, and people can’t find cheap, decent affordable housing or apartments.  This neighborhood used to be more racially and ethnically mixed with whites only about one-third of the population.  Now after Katrina, the demographics have flipped and whites are two-thirds of the residents.  Most of the people Lucha and I see are white.  I’d wager this same phenomenon is also happening in similar spots in areas that are a majority Black.

Lucha and I are just going along to get along, but we’re both clear that we’re seeing something on this block that speaks to a deeper crisis in the city and across America, where there is more month than money in Langston Hughes famous expression, as housing costs expand homelessness to the lower-waged and precarious worker.

Look around when you’re out and about, because this is a movie in production now and soon coming to a street near you.