- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - An estimated 160 homeless people who have been living under a stretch of the elevated Pontchartrain Expressway face a Thursday evening deadline from the city health department to vacate an area that officials say has become overrun with rats and garbage.

The city’s health department handed out notices Monday declaring the area a public health hazard and giving the people there 72 hours to leave so it can be cleaned. “Shelter beds are currently available and outreach workers are ready to help,” the notice said.

The notice covers a one-mile stretch from Claiborne Avenue to St. Charles Avenue, where the concrete is studded with tents, couches, armchairs and mattresses. Unfolded cardboard boxes with bags of clothes for pillows serve others as beds.

“I think in the last three months, the number of inhabitants has really, really increased,” said Anthony Faciane of the city’s Office of Community Development.

A count Friday found 160 people there, said Charlotte Parent, the city’s health director. Many were already gone by Wednesday. Some others were uncertain where they would go or even what time they had to be out.

“Did they say by 8 p.m. Thursday night, or is it 8 in the morning?” Robert Daniels, 52, asked Wednesday afternoon. He was sitting on two stacked milk crates outside the big maroon-and-white tent someone gave him while he was panhandling last week. Big chunks of concrete anchored the tent ropes.

“I just put my tent up last Tuesday,” he said.

The deadline is Thursday evening, not the morning, Parent said.

Daniels said he’s been living under the Pontchartrain Expressway for about a year, sleeping most of those nights on milk crates topped with a mattress. “The rats got so bad I had to move it,” he said.

The area is being closed because trash and filth attracted rats, and the city couldn’t get the area scrubbed and put out rat poison, Parent said.

Daniels wasn’t convinced. “They had rats before we came around. Bourbon Street has got a whole lot of rats,” he said. “Wherever you’ve got trash, you’ve got a whole lot of rats. This ain’t going to change that.”

He said he’ll probably just move his tent; he wasn’t sure where. The missions don’t have enough beds, and their cots aren’t sturdy enough for his weight, Daniels said.

City officials said they worked with local homeless shelters last week to make sure there were beds for everyone. Faciane said shelters that normally allow free stays of five or 10 days also agreed to extend that to 20 days, giving case workers time to help the people get medical, mental health and other services.

The overpass area has been cleared of homeless people periodically over the years, once in late 2011, in late 2012 before the Super Bowl, and sometime in 2013, Faciane said. “Our efforts are to focus on homelessness throughout the city,” he said. But when homeless agencies and other outreach workers report that conditions under the expressway are becoming dangerous, he said, the area has to be cleaned.

Russell Zehendner, 62, of Fort Wayne, Indiana, lay on a mattress near Daniels’ tent. He blamed people who live nearby for leaving trash under the expressway: “They don’t have to look at it. The people who stay here usually pick up after themselves.”

Zehendner said he’d worked in construction until a year ago, when a stroke severely damaged the vision in his left eye and numbed his right hand. “Luckily I’m left-handed,” he said. “But you don’t know how much you use that hand until you can’t.”

He had a bus schedule and said he planned to head out Thursday for Minnesota.

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