Amid a crowd of angry neighbors holding bright signs with slogans such as, “No To Tiny Homes,” and “Not In My Backyard,” Santosha Village Founder Haiyan Khan sits in a fold-out chair with a look equal parts stunned and exhausted. Khan’s Q&A session for the neighbors to voice concerns to both him and their council members has turned into a protest, and this realization strikes Khan as he sits on the vacant lot in New Orleans East, which his village will now be unable to inhabit.
“The neighborhood has been mistreated for so long,” says Santosha Board Member Kalpana Saxena, “they don’t have a lot of trust for anyone coming into their community making promises to them.” The residents of New Orleans East certainly have a reason for their fears. Since Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans suburb has typically served as the area in which low-income residents have been pushed, and the area now faces a heavy amount of crime.
Santosha Village is a proposed community of tiny homes that would be occupied by formerly homeless individuals, who would pay a small amount of rent in order have access to shared amenities such as showers, kitchen, and a garden, as well as their own tiny home–where they could sleep and store their personal items. Originally planning to occupy an overgrown lot off of Chef Highway, Santosha Board Members have needed to find another location for the project in response to the outcry from members of the community.
As a result of the history of sticking New Orleans East with “undesirable projects,” the residents were anxious to make sure that their interests were being represented. “New Orleans East has become a… depository for social experiments,” says resident Jim Ewers to WDSU, “and we cannot become a social experiment.” Other neighbors also pointed out concerns that the Santosha helpers were not from New Orleans East, and so did not need to deal with any negative consequences from the location of the village.
Candidates for City Council in the district were quick to follow suit with their constituents, both democratic candidates pledging not to allow the proposal to go forward. “We are not a dumping ground,” says City Council member Cyndi Nguyen to WDSU, while Council Member James Gray pledges that there “will be no homeless shelters… on any land within District E.”
Members of the Santosha project, all of whom are volunteers, understood the reluctance of the neighbors, but were nevertheless disappointed that their project was facing such a major setback. “At first, the reaction was very positive,” says Saxena, “and then suddenly the neighbors started making signs [to protest] and it quickly escalated from there. The local church was always very much in favor of the village, and tried to explain to the neighbors that this would be a good thing for the whole community.”
The stigma that surrounds homelessness negatively affected the views of what Santosha Village would do, and its possible effects on the neighborhood, says Saxena. “Santosha was not designed to be just for the homeless, but for anyone who was struggling. Many people, including those within the neighborhood, were one paycheck away from being on the streets.” Saxena continued on to say that Santosha, as opposed to a traditional shelter, would be able to foster a sense of community which would improve the area as a whole “since we wouldn’t accept just anyone. Only those who have demonstrated a willingness to change their life. And there are so many people who we have met who have shown that willingness. But it’s hard for them to change without help.”
According to Kathleen Gahr, Santosha Board Member, the reception of the project by neighbors was originally quite positive, due to the community outreach and partnerships with local schools and churches. “It was all going pretty well until one of our public meetings, where there was a man, a property owner in the area, who just about commandeered the meeting,” says Gahr. “Haiyan [Khan] is such a kind man, he wanted to hear everyone’s opinions and to respond to them, but it was clear that he wasn’t interested in hearing explanations. He started screaming about how everyone’s property value would drop, and we could tell that the neighbors were getting nervous the more he kept talking.”
In addition to a few such “squeaky wheels,” Gahr said that the media coverage of the Santosha development did a great deal of harm to their public image. “The first article that we had was a complete surprise. We were supposed to be having a small meeting with the neighborhood, and weren’t informed that both the reporters and the City Councilman would be there.” Gahr said that she thought the presence of the reporters seemed to force the Councilman Gray to take a firm stance in response to the perceived negative image of the project. “We had actually met with that Councilman before,” says Gahr, “and he was very supportive of us at that time. It was actually his idea for us to reach out to the local church as a way to introduce ourselves to the neighborhood… He didn’t try to cover up the fact that we had met, but it did seem like the media presence might have influenced his sudden shift in attitude.”
From there, Gahr said that public opinion began to shift against the project. “Whenever the reporters would come around, Haiyan would want to talk to them and just speak honestly about what we were trying to do in the neighborhood, but it was pretty obvious that they had already made their minds up. You could tell by the way that they edited the footage that they were out to sensationalize the footage.”
Among other things, Gahr pointed out one piece of footage which was used in three different video reports from the local news. Among many different perspectives of neighbors voicing their concerns about Santosha Village, the only clip of Haiyan Khan is tacked on at the end of the video. In it, Khan asks the viewer to consider the people who Santosha proposes to help, saying that someone needs to assist them. However, with the format of the video player, which automatically queues up another video, this “due diligence” quote is cut off midway through, rendering it incoherent unless the viewer elects to pause, rewind, and watch the clip again without the automatic queue.
The negative press which Santosha began to receive spiralled into a larger problem, affecting their previous partnerships and allies within the community. “The news had footage of neighbors saying that we had been deceptive in our dealings with them,” says Gahr, “and after that, the church who we had been partnered with felt like they couldn’t trust us anymore. We also had two police officers working with the homeless division on the board, and they were told by their department to sever all relations with Santosha. It really spun out of control after those videos came out.”
But the negative press that Santosha Village received from local news outlets, as well as the promises made by politicians to block the sale of the land, have forced Santosha members to consider other options. “It’s a shame, really,” says Saxena, “that land was so run down when we first came to it. Overrun with garbage and weeds and such. We had put a lot of time and hours, both the volunteers and hopeful residents, in cleaning it up, until it was really starting to look like a possibility. Who knows,” she says, smiling, “anything’s possible, I guess, but we are now forced to start considering other options.”
And the village has been able to find another location, located in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which will be able to fit both their budget and other specifications. “We didn’t want to build the village in Metairie or another suburb, where our residents would have trouble being able to get transport back to the city, and be separated from the places where they grew up and still know people,” says Saxena. “We are really excited about this new location, and the neighborhood has embraced us there. We think it will be a very good fit for our residents, and we hope to start construction soon.”
Gahr has experience with projects with this and wanted to emphasize that finding the right location often takes a long time. “This is the way these things go. There are setbacks, backers drop out and get replaced. The important part is to keep moving forward when opportunities provide themselves.”
With Santosha Village moving ahead with secondary locations and planning, and the neighborhood settling back into its routine, the overgrown lot on Warwick Place remains empty, with only a wooden sign advertising Santosha Village, flanked on both sides by bright plastic ones reading FOR SALE, left behind on yet another undeveloped property in New Orleans East.