Illustration: Jim Cooke (GMG)

The Big Easy can be hard. New Orleans has more than 1,300 homeless residents. They can tell you how it is.

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Floyd, sitting on Decatur Street just south of Jackson Square.

“I been in New Orleans three months. Too long. See this here? [Raises shirt to reveal a huge bandage on the left side of his stomach]. I got stabbed. I was walking down the sidewalk, just like these people here, and somebody mistaken me for somebody else. They just walked up and stabbed me. Three weeks ago.

I buried my mother in Tampa. I only had a hundred dollars after I paid for the hospital bills and everything else. You know how that goes. I figured well, I’ll take $50 and get me as far as I can, then I’ll have the other $50 for food. I was headed back to Milwaukee. I got as far as Baton Rouge. I didn’t like that either.

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You get down around here, it’s off the wall at night. I don’t usually hang out here, I hang out on the east side. There’s too much trouble down here. The east side is kinda more like laid back. I’m trying to get outta here. It costs me $17.50 to get from here to Slidell, across the causeway.

You got good people and you got bad people. I been out here long enough I can tell who is good and who isn’t. I’m 61 years old. I been in the military. I was working for a job, a machine shop. They decided they wanted to move to a different state. I was taking care of my mother at the time. The doctor told her she couldn’t have another heart surgery, it might kill her. So she moved to Florida. She ended up dying down there. I been going through a lot of shit since then.

I’m still striving on getting back to Milwaukee. But you get up $20 a day, you gotta eat. You gotta survive. Buy razors, stuff like that. It’s tough. It’d be different if I hit a lick, come up with a hundred bucks, I’d be on the bus, just like that.

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The government won’t help you out without an ID. I don’t have an ID. I even tried to get into a homeless shelter. You’ve got to have an ID. When the weather is bad? I deal with it. I just sleep underneath—you see that over there? [Gestures to a second-floor balcony across the street]. I just sleep under that, on a piece of cardboard. I had a sleeping bag, but I ended up going to the hospital, and they didn’t take it with em, and somebody stole it. So now I ain’t got nothing.

I been over on the east side, and there’s a lot of abandoned buildings. This city could easily step in there and say hey, we’re gonna turn this into a homeless shelter. It’s just setting there empty. You got a lot of people in homeless shelters just to get out of the weather. I’m from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Four years ago I spent a night on the street just like this in 35 below zero. You have to.

I usually just hang by myself. After my wife and kids died, I’m just by myself. They got killed in a car accident. A semi rolled over on them. My boys were three, four, and one. They got killed two days before Christmas. It was in 1980, but it seems like yesterday.

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Hobo, on Constance St. next to the Pontchartrain Expressway.

“I’ll be 69 in September. I’m a hobo. Off and on, I been out here 36 years. Soon as I get my check, I’m leaving. I’m going home, Jacksonville, Florida. I’m too old for this.

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I rode trains. I always came here, 36 years. My wife got killed in 1972 and I became a hobo. I gave up hope. I been a hobo ever since. This is what I do. I stay right over there.

It’s dangerous out here. People come up while you sleep. I got jumped on a couple of times. Cause I’m old, and they know I get a check. The police are good. Believe it or not, they’re really good. The city comes and cleans up every week. They spray the area, every week.

There’s all kind of people out here. Some of em ain’t got a choice, some of em got a choice. But see, I don’t have to be out here. I want to be. It’s my lifestyle. I’m happy. But I’m too old for it now. I love it. But I got hurt, and I can’t jump on the train no more.

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A lot of people got to be out here. They can’t afford nothing. Unity [a local charity group] helps them. There’s a housing program. I had an apartment, but I wasn’t happy. I love the outside life!

I’m too old for this. I’m too old for this, bubba.”

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Del, on Royal Street near Bienville.

“I was born and raised here. I’m 74. My father lived in New York. He had a big rooming house, four stories. After the hurricane, they flew me to San Antonio. I stayed there three years, and I called my daughter and sent her a ticket to come get me. I had bought a secondhand van, and we drove to Atlanta. I stayed there three years and then I came back. And I’m sorry I came back. Too much bad things happen here. And it’s not gonna change. I don’t think it’s gonna change.

Killing, stealing. It’s rough. I’m on a fixed income, and I come out here sometimes, only when I need to. I had a lady police give me three citations for sitting out here with this sign. I have a house. But that little money they give me don’t last. I gotta pay rent. I gotta pay lights. I gotta pay my little cell phone. It’s hard for old people. They give me $783. And I also get $60 food stamps. I eat that in two days! Cause I like to eat.

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I been out here every now and then for like three years. Like I’m sitting here? You might have another one come here and say ‘This is my spot.’ I’ll just get up and move. I know it’s rough, but they do drugs, alcohol.

It would be easier for me if they would help not just me, but all the older people. With more money. It’s rough. [Starts crying]. I’m sick, and really I shouldn’t be out here.

I was a cocktail waitress on the strip when I was younger, and I was making good money. I was out on Bourbon Street. I kept myself nice. I used to walk out with three, four hundred. See this? [Shows the calluses on her feet] All I was getting was a dollar an hour, so I had to do some walking.”

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Rob, on the side of the expressway by Annunciation Street.

“I been living on the West Bank of New Orleans my whole life, but I been living on this side for six years. People out here have different problems. I don’t really associate with people too much. I just kind of stay to myself, and I don’t really have much of any kind of a problem.

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I just messed up, smoking a little bit of weed. Messed up on a drug screen and messed my job up and everything. I was working on a tugboat. I got to go through some stuff and get back on it again.

You can go over to the shelter and they can help you out with different stuff. You gotta be serious about it. They can give you assistance with different things. I kinda just stay out of it. I’m not expecting something for nothing. I don’t really ask anybody for anything, I don’t go on the corners and beg. People give me food and stuff like that. I stay to myself. But people see the situation I’m in and give me five, ten, twenty bucks. I had a guy give me a hundred right here. People tend to feel bad about it.

Even though people say ‘He’s doing this to himself,’ that may not be the problem. It may not be a long time thing. You may be thinking he’s nothing but a bum, but that may not be what’s going on either.

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It’s alright. You stay to yourself out here, it’s alright.”

Woody, under the expressway at Tchoupitoulas.

“I made it. I didn’t think I would. I been in New Orleans off and on for 40 years. Originally from South Carolina. I got busted with a joint in South Carolina back in the 70s, and my family—pretty powerful family—said ‘Son, nobody ever smoked that shit in our family, much less got busted with a joint.’ I believed in Jesus, and people. I believed in equality, and that wasn’t accepted in the South, treating black people just like regular folks. So they said, ‘get the hell outta the state.’

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So I said where’s a liberal town, a party town? Being young like I was, I was into drinking and partying. So I came to New Orleans. I made a lot of money here. I worked on that convention center. I’m the one guy who knows it inside and out. I worked in this city, until I got cancer. I lost my job, I didn’t know what was wrong. I got down from 190 pounds to 119 pounds. I got as far as Mobile, I was driving my pickup truck. I stopped, I was feeling bad. There was a little clinic that gave diabetes shot. The lady called me and said ‘Sir, we gotta talk to you.’ She said ‘you have second stage cancer.’

I hit my knees and said, ‘just give me a fighting chance.’

That was two years ago. Every three months I have to come back here. They test me and make sure I’m still okay. I’m a survivor, not a loser, like most of my friends.

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I just camp out. I’ve got a sleeping bag. Most of these people out here are on drugs, bad people, stealing, robbing. I like to walk with the Lord and it’s a whole different ballgame. Who else sits on the side of the road and says ‘God bless you?’

Camping out here it ain’t good, it ain’t easy. But I’m alright. God makes you wait. He sent me you. He knew I needed a few dollars to eat on tonight.

I leave next week to go to Florida to hook up with my daughter. She won’t come back here cause her mom died here.

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I’m a regular guy. A good old Christian boy. That’s all I ever wanted to be. Somebody brought me a rack of ribs the other day. God is so amazing.”


Interviews edited for clarity.