By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
A completely refurbished, 24-room motel is set to expand the loving embrace of Hotel Hope, the local non-profit staffed by the Sisters of the Presentation that offers emergency shelter to homeless mothers and their children.
Hotel Hope’s newly purchased location, to be based out of the former Crescent Palms Motel at 3923 Martin Luther King Blvd. in New Orleans, will provide short-term accommodations to more than 20 families at a time inside private, fully-furnished, double guest rooms. Families may reside there for 30 to 45 days as they work with Hotel Hope’s case managers to find sustainable employment and permanent housing.
“The motel is in beautiful condition. The rooms are all self-contained and ready to go,” said Sister of the Presentation Mary Lou Specha, Hotel Hope’s executive director, speaking in advance of the Aug. 15 act of sale.
“When you’re in crisis and you come to a shelter, your primary goal is to get off the street. You can’t think about anything else. You’re not thinking about things like going back to school to complete your education – you just want your children to be safe,” Sister Mary Lou noted. “Over time, as our guests receive intensive case management, they realize, ‘I can do this.’”
Comforts of home
Built in 1962 and renovated down to the studs by its previous owners after Hurricane Katrina, the two-story motel is located one block from the South Broad Street pumping station in the neighborhood formerly dominated by the B.W. Cooper Housing Development (now the “Marrero Commons” cluster of clapboard townhouses). Hotel Hope is the building’s fourth owner.
The mid-century modern-style structure, which still sports its neon-lit front signage, was purchased in excellent condition and with all its furnishings, appliances, draperies, bed linens, towels and wall art included.
Twenty-two of the 24 original guest rooms will become the private living quarters of formerly homeless families, each space offering two double beds, a dresser, desk, chairs, lamps, ensuite bathroom with bathtub/shower, closet, mini-fridge, microwave, television and AC/heating unit.
Feeding bodies, souls
Because motels of this vintage rarely were designed to include large kitchen or restaurant spaces, Hotel Hope’s guests will dine together at small tables inside a newly renovated café in the Crescent Palms’ former bar.
“We have a license to serve and reheat food but not to cook,” Sister Mary Lou explained. “We want to make it a friendly café space so that families can eat together; families can come here for a continental breakfast. We’re going to really call on the community and solicit the church groups and other organizations to help us with the evening meal. For lunch, while the kids are in school, we’ll always have sandwiches available (for the mothers).”
Private and public spaces
In addition to giving mothers and their children the privacy and dignity of having their own little “home” inside their rooms, Hotel Hope also has built-in community spaces that will bring guests together for classes, recreation and the tasks of daily living.
With this social aspect in mind, Hotel Hope’s two remaining guest rooms will be adapted into a children’s playroom and a meeting space for parenting classes and other group activities.
The motel’s first-floor laundry, equipped with industrial-size washers and dryers, will continue to be used for heavier loads of linens and towels, while space on the second floor will be converted into a separate laundry room for guests’ personal use, Sister Mary Lou said.
A large central parking area, originally designed to give motel guests drive-up parking spots outside their front door, will become car-free and be turned into a children’s play area. Nearby, picnic tables for outdoor gatherings sit in the shade of yet another amenity of the old Crescent Palms: a sprawling second-floor terrace that overlooks the motel complex on one side and Martin Luther King Boulevard on the other.
The absence of one traditional motel feature – an in-ground swimming pool – is another plus for Hotel Hope, which will not be burdened with the related safety and maintenance concerns.
Impressive track record
Sister Mary Lou said the 56-year-old motel came to Hotel Hope’s attention last fall, when its board of directors learned it had gone on the market. Since February 2017, Hotel Hope had been operating out of a small house in Broadmoor called “Hotel Hope Chalet,” which could accommodate only two families at a time. Still, thanks to the ministry’s template of intensive, one-on-one case management – including helping women with educational remediation, job prep and budgeting skills – 23 of the chalet’s 24 resident mothers have gone on to find permanent housing and employment in fields ranging from hairdressing to hotel management.
The chalet’s success story also includes getting more than 60 children off the streets and into a daily routine of school, recreation and enrichment activities.
“We just had a mom who already had her high school diploma but was able to complete courses to get work as a phlebotomist,” Sister Mary Lou said, noting that Hotel Hope receives eight to 10 distress calls each week, among them, a woman who had been living in a park for two weeks with her three children, including a 3-month-old baby.
“It’s very difficult in New Orleans,” Sister Mary Lou said. “The issue is finding affordable housing. It’s difficult to find places to live, at their income, that they can afford, that are nice, that you or I would live in.”
An ‘invisible’ demographic
The $1.4 million purchase price of the Martin Luther King property, which includes a side parking lot and a neighboring 6-plex house, was made possible by two major gifts. One of the donors, the Sisters of the Presentation of Dubuque, Iowa, gave Hotel Hope a $1 million, 15-year loan, a portion of which has been set aside as seed money for an endowment.
Michael DeZura, one of the motel’s previous owners, said he was unaware of the complexity of the city’s homelessness problem until learning about Hotel Hope’s unique ministry and witnessing the impact of last winter’s deep freeze.
“I didn’t realize how many homeless women and children there were out there. I just always thought of homeless people being mostly men, because that was all I could see,” DeZura said.
“We (former motel owners) believe in the mission of Hotel Hope. I said, ‘We’ve got to make this happen!’ We just prayed and prayed.”
Guests receive followup
Unlike traditional hotel guests, those who seek Hotel Hope’s assistance must be referred through agencies such as UNITY for the Homeless and will not be permitted to simply walk in to request a room. The motel’s original reception desk, supervised around the clock by volunteer concierges, will serve as the main public entrance. The complex of hotel rooms, once accessible from the street, will be secured behind locked gates, and visitors will be limited to guests, staff and volunteers.
Another key component of Hotel Hope’s successful model is giving rent assistance to guests – for three to four months following their departure from the shelter – through a federal program called Rapid Rehousing. Hotel Hope also follows up with families for one year to ensure its former residents are achieving their goals and sustaining their independence, for example, by putting some of their income into a savings account.
“They’re helping themselves realize that they need to economically move up the ladder a little bit,” Sister Mary Lou said. “The No. 1 cause of homelessness is poverty – low wages and extremely high rents. In order to afford the average two-bedroom apartment or house, with utilities, you have to make almost $19 an hour.”
Convent to be restored
As this new location of Hotel Hope begins accepting guests, the non-profit’s original plan to establish its main shelter at the former St. Matthias convent on South Broad Street, on the campus of Blessed Trinity Catholic Church, remains very much on the front burner.
The convent site, named the Phyllis M. Taylor Hotel Hope in honor of its primary benefactor, is gutted but awaiting renovation as a federal arbitration court determines the amount of post-Katrina damages FEMA must cover. A preliminary report was issued July 9, but negotiations continue, with a final settlement expected by Thanksgiving, Sister Mary Lou said.
Meanwhile, Sister Mary Lou said the ministry will continue to rely on the time, talent and treasure of volunteers who donate items such as food, children’s clothing, high chairs and basic furnishings for guests’ new homes. They also oversee tasks such as cooking meals, freshening rooms in-between guests and leading story and craft time with the children.
“They have really provided the stability and foundation for being able to continue to do what we do with a very small staff. We will continue to call upon the graciousness and the great gifts of the community to help us do this,” Sister Mary Lou said.
“My philosophy all along has been that the community of faith will take care of the most vulnerable – and they have,” she said. “Not everybody who comes to us is Catholic – or even a believer or a church-goer – but they believe in what we’re doing and they believe in helping the most vulnerable. And who are the most vulnerable? The children.”
To learn more about Hotel Hope, call 715-9798 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. A grand opening is planned for late September.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.