Refuges for homeless pose fire hazard in New Orleans

By Richard A. Webster
New Orleans CityBusiness (New Orleans, LA)

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NEW ORLEANS — Two blocks down from the charred ruins of Carpet World on Canal Street stands the six-story former City Hall Annex.

At one point it housed the offices of Neighborhood Development, Parking Control and Veteran Affairs.

Today it is empty, another abandoned building, one of thousands in New Orleans. The windows and doors are shuttered with plywood, and on the front entrance the New Orleans Fire Department posted a sign marked with a large red X warning firefighters the structure is unsafe to enter.

To the hundreds of motorists who pass the building every day, it appears to be dormant and forgotten, a lifeless hulk left to deteriorate under its own crumbling weight.

But others see the former municipal property as a potential hazard.

On Jan. 29, the vacant Carpet World building at 1539 Canal St. caught fire, a four-alarm blaze that reduced it to a smoldering pile of debris.

The NOFD is still investigating the fire, though many suspect it may have been ignited by homeless people seeking shelter from the winter cold.

The Carpet World building was small compared with the City Hall Annex, yet it still required more than 75 firefighters to put out the blaze.

While there is no hard proof that Carpet World was being used for shelter, evidence found inside the annex suggests potentially hundreds of people have made it their home for the past several years.

New Orleans attorney Cesar Burgos and a group of investors bought the building from the city in 2006. He intended to redevelop it as a mixed-use commercial and residential project until the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced its plans for the new VA hospital.

The annex sits on the VA footprint, killing plans for redevelopment. Burgos said he is now waiting to receive an offer from the VA for the building. He said he does his best to secure the annex, but there is only so much he can do to keep out people desperate for shelter.

"We've repeatedly sealed off the building, and unfortunately they keep breaking in," Burgos said. "When the will is there, they find a way. And because it's such a big building, it's difficult to secure. Unless we have 24-hour security, it's virtually impossible to keep people out. "

At first glance, the annex appears to be sealed off to vagrants with every conceivable entrance covered with plywood. But around the corner from the main entrance, hidden behind a portable toilet, is an open doorway.

Above the darkness of the first floor, the building teems with signs of life. In place of piles of bureaucratic papers once shuffled by city workers, there are piles of cigarette butts smoked to the filter and heaps of discarded food containers, clothing and bottles of St. Ides malt liquor and Heaven Hills Kentucky whiskey.

In the dozens of rooms once used as offices by city directors and planners there are crumpled blankets and curtains used as makeshift beds. The inhabitant of Room 318 dragged a mattress and box spring up three flights of stairs, placed them on several doors supported by four cinder blocks and created what resembles a low-rent motel room complete with a nightstand and coat rack.

The space is immaculately kept compared with the others, such as the former office of Anthony Faciane, deputy director of neighborhood stabilization for the city's Office of Recovery Development Administration.

Last year Faciane proposed creating a law that would make it illegal for people to live in public places, such as underneath the Claiborne Avenue overpass.

Today, his former office is littered with food wrappers, filthy sweatpants and bottles of Thunderbird wine and Miles Distilled London Dry gin.

Scattered throughout the fifth floor are all manners of pornography, from "Barely Legal" DVD covers to an "Equus Erotica" magazine that features a woman in a Roman chariot being pulled by two people in full-body leather outfits.

Most disturbing, however, are the piles of black ash and giant burn marks in the rugs and tiles on floors four through six. In one room, the flames of the bonfire appeared to have reached the ceiling and raged out of control to the point where whoever lit the fire had to roll up the carpet to put it out.

Fire Chief Norman Woodridge said he wasn't surprised when told of the activity taking place in the annex.

"Most abandoned buildings, people try to board them up but once you board them up, especially a big building like that, (the homeless are) going to knock the door down and go back in because they're trying to get out of the cold," Woodridge said.

"And when they get in there they're going to cook and start a fire to keep heated. It's a normal occurrence. It's unfortunate, but that's what they do and a lot don't have knowledge of what's going to burn and what's not going to burn."

Copyright 2009 Dolan Media Newswires

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