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New Orleans Seeks to Oust Charities from Park

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New Orleans Seeks to Oust Charities from Park

Katrina & Beyond

New Orleans Seeks to Oust Charities from Park

New Orleans Seeks to Oust Charities from Park

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Volunteers give hot meals and free medicine to whomever shows up at Washington Square Park in New Orleans. But the city is now trying to oust the charity workers and wants to start charging people who've been camping in a city park.


Well, with little money, New Orleans has to get creative in its rebuilding, but some people who are volunteering their services are finding the city less welcoming than before. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

Until today, workers cleaning up hurricane debris in New Orleans, who made a small corner of the massive and once-elegant City Park their home, did so for free. Now they must pay rent: $300 a month for pitching a tent and $350 if the workers live in a trailer. Sitting in his tent on the park land, construction worker Mike, who only gave his first name, said his first check would only be $300, so he wasn't about to hand it over.

MIKE (Construction Worker): I came down here to work and to help these people out. I'm not going to work this long making $300 and pay it to these guys. I'm sorry. People are going to scatter.

CORLEY: The camping site coordinator, Ron Briggs(ph), said the rental fee is no slap at workers who have come to help rebuild New Orleans. He says the revenue is needed to bring City Park back to life.

Mr. RON BRIGGS (Camp Site Coordinator): The park is self-subsisting. The park gets no tax dollars. The park needs revenue. It had $43 million worth of damage done to it in the hurricane, you know, and the subsequent flooding.

CORLEY: Briggs said the money is not only for the park's use, but it will help the park provide showers, more portable toilets and other necessities for workers who have made the park their temporary home. It's not rent, but the threat of eviction, for a group of volunteers at another New Orleans park. Washington Square Park is located in the Marigny neighborhood, not far from the French Quarter. For more than a month, it's been a place for anyone looking for some friendly conversation, medical care or a free hot, home-cooked meal.

(Soundbite of sizzling)

CORLEY: The all-volunteer relief center provides three meals a day, since the majority of grocery stores in New Orleans remain closed. Darren Watson, who showed up for lunch, said it's a blessing for people trying to salvage their lives.

Mr. DARREN WATSON: Where my sister is right now, we have no power, you know, no lights and, you know, we've been trying to clean up. We just bought groceries and food and everything, getting ready to go back. People are suffering right now.

CORLEY: Deanne Dominick, the head of Barefoot Doctors Academy, used to live in the neighborhood. She got the city's Health Department's permission to use the park as a relief center. Dominick says New Orleans' welcome seems to be wearing thin. This week, police showed up and told workers to shut the place down.

Ms. DEANNE DOMINICK (Barefoot Doctors Academy): Or they would lock the gates and confiscate our approximately $100,000 worth of equipment and throw them in the Dumpsters. That's what they had threatened to do.

CORLEY: Dominick says the licenses of the nurses, midwives and other volunteers are intact, and she believes the park kitchen is up to code, but more people have come back to live in the neighborhood and a few have complained.

In a small antique shop across the street from the park, owner Theresa Latshaw(ph) says the relief center doesn't bother her, but she understands that other neighbors might not want to wake up every day and see tents outside their front door.

Ms. THERESA LATSHAW (Antique Shop Owner): On the one hand, I've eaten over there, too. The food was all right. On the other hand, I don't think I'd want to see this every day. However, it is a disaster area.

CORLEY: It's also an area, says Dominick, where more than 16,000 people have received help. During a public hearing she tried to garner support from Mayor Ray Nagin, but the mayor said, as residents and businesses return to New Orleans, he has to make sure even volunteer efforts are regulated.

(Soundbite of public hearing)

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): And we'd love to help you, but we're going to have to do it in the manner where we can do it according to the law.

Ms. DOMINICK: So we can stay there as long as we can work through these issues?

Mayor NAGIN: I'm not saying you can stay or you can't stay.

CORLEY: So it is with a sense of uncertainty the relief effort in Washington Square Park continues. In the meantime, Dominick says they'll look for another New Orleans neighborhood where the volunteer effort may be more needed and more accepted. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, New Orleans.

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