Back in 2011 New Orleans had 6,500 people living on the streets, which for a city of 360,000 was around two percent of the population. This may not seem huge but by simple comparison Los Angeles, which gets called the homeless capital of America, has a homeless rate of just 0.5 percent. For New Orleans it all came to a head in November when the mayor, Mitch Landrieu, enacted a scheme to end homelessness within ten years. The scheme pledged to lower public housing costs whilst providing financial assistance and in short, smelt like socialism and upset all the red-necks. As the manager of my hostel said “You look at Atlanta. You try sleeping there and they’ll arrest you for urban camping. You think they’ve got bums? And they’re not wasting all them tax dollars neither.”
I decided to run an experiment. As the government is tackling homelessness the socialist way (and just for the record, the results are looking good) I figured I’d do it old school and deport some bums. More importantly though, I’d answer something I’ve wondered since childhood. That is, why don’t the homeless go camping? Surely you’d be safer outside the city? In an empty farmhouse for example, or an abandoned theme park.
This is the Six Flags Amusement Park. As you can see the place closed before Katrina and then it marinated in storm surge for a month, destroying everything of value. I figured it was a perfect sanctuary so I went looking for some potential residents with two small, vulnerable girls from the hostel. We found Jeff and Harold panhandling beneath an overpass and they agreed that the plan was flawless.
Jeff (on left)
I was born July 6th, 1961 in Omaha, Nebraska. I’m United States of America certified welder, plus four other countries. But twenty-two years of welding kind of messed my lungs up. Fifteen years ago they gave me six months to live with chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema and about the same time I was paying for all my medical bills, my wife discovered crack cocaine. I came home one day and she was high as a kite so I told her I was cutting off the money and I left. When I came back a week later there was a cop parked in my drive and he says he’s got a warrant for my arrest. For what? I say. For terroristic threat he says. Anyway my wife had made all this stuff up because I cut off her income and the Missouri court system, in their infinite wisdom, buried me in jail for seven months. Meanwhile my wife sold all of our stuff for crack so that when I finally got out I had nothing. I couldn’t even work because of my lungs so I started travelling. I was homeless but I just went wherever it was warm. I wound up in San Diego and my first night there I ran into Harold in an alley. He asked if I wanted to smoke a joint and that was six years ago. We’ve been together ever since. If you had no house and no car and no money, would you want to be alone in New Orleans?
Harold (on right)
My name’s Harold Kenneth Yarbrough. I was born in Montgomery on August 30th, 1955. I’ve been homeless for going on twenty years. All over the place too, but I was here when the hurricane came in. It got dark. Daylight looked like dark. Lightening everywhere. You hear trees and stuff, it just sounded like a mean gorilla, ten stories high and he’s got lice on him. I had a place at that time on Bermuda Street so I was staying inside but I could still hear the dam pop. It was like a bomb and then the water came. I knew the house was in the way so I grabbed the cushions off the couch and put them under the door. I knew it was going to come but I was hoping not so fast. And right that moment, man I ain’t lying, here comes this tree root through the door and it pins me. I got the scar to prove it. Luckily the water also floated the root so I could get out and up the stairs. I was thinking it would flood the house out so I knocked out the attic frame and got onto the roof. I could feel the foundations of the whole house twisting. Water was all the way around the house, with a space left about the size of this car. I thought this can’t be happening to me. Later I saw this raccoon swimming. I wasn’t mad at him, he wasn’t mad at me. I just grabbed him behind his ears where he couldn’t bite me and I threw him onto the roof. I said, man you can do whatever you like but I just saved your butt. So me and that raccoon were up there for 7 days and believe me, when you get thirsty enough, you’ll drink that river and it’s nasty. Some blacks shot me a bird for me and that’s good enough too. God bless, you’ve been saved. And here come the helicopters. I told them I was a diabetic and they gave me my sugar and took me to the dome, which was worse because people were stealing stuff and raping each other. You put 30,000 people together, elbow-to-elbow, with overflowing porta-poties so what do you think will happen? As soon as I got myself out I went to California where I met my best friend here. Lord knows I wouldn’t have come back if it wasn’t for him.
We left the city in a small rental car, drove and pulled over. There was a walk through vines and poison oak but finally we arrived and I held my arms aloft like some real estate jerk and said, “Welcome to your new home.” Harold’s leg problems melted and he and Jeff styled for the camera.
This is one of those swinging grandstand things with about nine different axis that make you cry and loose things from your pockets. The guys looked at it while Jeff got out his puffed bottom lip that he called the train driver. He did the train driver a lot.
The train driver inspects his new cottage.
And here’s an unpleasant rollercoaster. It pleased me to see all these cruel rides broken.
And then security showed up and the plan changed. They came at us in a pickup and there was that slowed moment like when you fall off a bike and try dodging the ground. They pulled up and told us the rental car had been blocked and we’d have to come along in the truck. Then they gave Jeff and Harold the eyes and told us to sit in the tray.
We signed forms and security made rudimentary passes on the girls before they finally turned us loose at the gate. Outside I apologised to Jeff and Harold. I said I was sorry that I’d got them in trouble and made them the subject of a smug article about nothing. “Well, at least you know why it’s easier to stay in the city”, smiled Jeff.
“That’s right,” said Harold. “But life sucks anywhere unless someone looks after your monkey butt.” And I figured he was right, both for himself and all the other homeless people of New Orleans. It’s good the mayor has their monkey butts.
Follow Julian on Twitter: @MorgansJulian
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