Fourteen months ago, Tasha Duplantis arrived at Project Lazarus with a garbage bag filled with three changes of clothes. HIV-positive since 1996 and fresh from 28 days of rehab for an addiction to cocaine, she was finally drug-free but felt worthless.
“I had nothing,” Duplantis said. “I was on the street and selling myself and just doing degrading things. And I had just had enough. From (drug rehab) I came straight here, into the welcoming arms of everybody here at Project Lazarus.”
Duplantis, who has been clean ever since, now leads Project Lazarus’ new Resident Council.
“Had I not had a place to come to where the outside issues were not bogging me down, I’d have never recovered,” Duplantis said. “I would probably be dead.”
Founded by the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 1985, Project Lazarus began as a hospice where men and women could die with dignity at the peak of the AIDS epidemic.
When Father Paul Desrosiers learned that the black wreaths hanging on balconies and doors in the French Quarter signified the death toll AIDS was taking on New Orleans, he and a fellow Catholic priest, Father Bob Pawell, obtained the consent of Archbishop Philip Hannan to locate Project Lazarus in the 135-year-old convent and rectory on the decommissioned parish grounds of Holy Trinity Church in Bywater.
“People were dying; their families were rejecting them; their friends were rejecting them; they had no place to go,” said Kim Moss, executive director of Project Lazarus. “They were just dying, sometimes literally, in the street because, back then, once you got (HIV), it hit you hard and fast.”
Hospice no more
Although it still offers hospice care for those residents who need it, the drugs that are now helping HIV-positive individuals to manage their disease have enabled Project Lazarus to transition into a bright and bustling independent-living complex that supports the wellness of 23 men and women. Residents, who must be homeless in order to be admitted, may stay for up to two years and receive daily, home-cooked meals. Each wing has a 24-hour personal care attendant who helps residents monitor their medication, and the staff includes a full-time nurse, social worker and substance abuse counselor.
Daphiny Cook, a resident since March, said Project Lazarus helps the HIV-positive “get a grip” on their health, the number one thing those with HIV must pay attention to.
“When you don’t have those basic necessities – when you’re hungry and you have no place to sleep – your health is the last thing you’re going to worry about,” said Cook, who got on her feet quickly in her new home and was elected as vice president of the Resident Council. “Project Lazarus really enables us to really focus on taking care of ourselves and teaching us to consistently take our meds.”
Duplantis said Project Lazarus is a sanctuary that embraces residents “like a great big hug” while preparing them for independent living.
“When I first got here, all my defenses were up because I didn’t think that there was sincerity for people like us; everybody judges us so easily,” Duplantis said. “When I got here, I saw a lot of smiling faces and a lot of perceived love, and I thought, ‘Oh, this’ll wear off in a little while.’ But it never did. The staff genuinely cares for us and loves us, even when we don’t love ourselves.”
Project Lazarus’ Dauphine Street facade belies what is behind it: a sprawling and bustling complex of airy, high-ceilinged bedrooms, kitchens, a five-station computer lab and common areas for recreation, study and the compulsory wellness meetings.
Five distinct gardens, some sporting fountains, offer residents space to be alone or in small groups. Vestiges of the site’s Catholic roots include statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Francis of Assisi, and the soaring towers of the former Holy Trinity Church.
Although Project Lazarus primarily is funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the archdiocese provides a portion of its annual funding and maintains a strong consultative presence on its board. Catholics, including Archbishop Alfred Hughes, are among its dedicated and loving corps of volunteers.
“Ninety-seven percent of folks say the same four words after they’ve had a tour: ‘I had no idea,’” said Moss, whose 18-month tenure as director has seen the launching of “Wellness University,” an incentive-based series of courses focusing on areas such as living skills, communication skills and budgeting.
Project Lazarus also is home to a green initiative that recently was recognized by LifeCity, a sustainable living effort. Cost-saving features include LED lighting, a 1,000-gallon cistern to irrigate the gardens and new energy-efficient air conditioning units.
“A lot of people still think (Project Lazarus is) a hospice, and it’s not,” Moss said. “We have a fitness center and an organic vegetable garden. We make our own mulch. We make our own compost for fertilizer.”
Finding a voice
Another sign of vitality was the revival nine months ago of Project Lazarus’ long-lapsed Resident Council, which meets every two weeks. Moss said residents’ ability to have input in conversations about how to improve their quality of life is a balm in the lives of formerly homeless individuals who often are too timid to speak up for themselves.
“No staff goes to (the Resident Council’s) meetings – it’s strictly the residents. It’s their opportunity to raise issues – ‘I don’t like this,’ or ‘Could we have this?’” Moss said.
“Some people are scared to talk to their doctor, for example,” he said. “If they learn how to advocate for themselves (through the Resident Council), hopefully, as they move on, they will realize, ‘I am worthy; I have self-worth; I can stand up for myself; I can make my needs be known.’”
Welcome to Laz-Mart
Residents’ enhanced advocating skills already are bearing fruit. A group of residents recently launched an in-house snack shop called Laz-Mart where residents and staff can buy snacks and beverages. Laz-Mart has already paid back its initial $640 investment and has earned an additional $800, now deposited in a fund that will defray the costs of extras such as residential outings and going-away gifts. Residents also hope to launch an Internet Café-style coffeehouse in the near future.
“It will have our residents involved in inventory, management, conflict resolution – skills they can take with them when they leave,” Duplantis said. “All of this motivates people to realize that you’re not thrown away, you’re not worthless.”
Despite the new drug therapies that are bringing those with HIV “back from the grave,” Cook said that ministries such as Project Lazarus must be continually lobbied for, because HIV still has “a lot of stigma” attached to it.
“Project Lazarus is a rare diamond,” Cook said. “We need more diamonds.”
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.