Built to Serve
St. Joseph Rebuild Center is a tailor-made safe haven for New Orleans’ unhoused people
Date of opening
Persons in Charge
Jessica Lovell, director of DePaul USA, New Orleans; Kenitha Grooms-Williams, executive director, Lantern Light Ministry; Emily Bussen Wain, executive director, Harry Tompson Center
The center was designed by The University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture Collaborative Design Center (UDM). The late Wayne Troyer was the New Orleans architect who oversaw the building of the center.
In 2007, the St. Joseph Rebuild Center opened to serve unhoused individuals in New Orleans. Three agencies comprise the center, which provides shelter, health, hygiene, hospitality and housing services. Recently, we visited with Mary Baudouin, Harry Tompson Center board president; Emily Bussen Wain, Harry Tompson Center executive director; Kenitha Grooms-Williams, executive director, Lantern Light Ministry; and Paisleigh Kelley, communications director for the Harry Tompson Center, to learn more about the center, its work and what it is striving to achieve in 2022.
Biz New Orleans: What were your goals for the design and why?
Mary Baudouin: Primarily, we wanted a structure which could be built quickly after Hurricane Katrina, that’s why it is built around trailers, which could be put in place quickly. Second, we didn’t want a “permanent” structure, even though it became permanent. At the time, we didn’t know if homeless people would return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, so we didn’t want to invest a huge amount of money into a facility that might not be needed. Third, we wanted a space that was specifically built for the population we were serving, primarily “chronically homeless” people. The outdoor design was conceived to serve those who often have difficulty spending longer periods of time in enclosed spaces.
What was the biggest design challenge and how was it overcome?
Baudouin: One of the biggest challenges that we faced was the building timeline. Initially we wanted to use trailers so that we could get the center up and running as quickly as possible. We did not anticipate that it would take so long to get the permits, electrical work, plumbing and even the trailers themselves, so our initial goal of getting into operation within six months was not met. If we had known that it would take so long, we might have used more permanent and hurricane-proof designs that were still less expensive but that could be constructed quickly. Along those same lines, the price of building the center in the post-Katrina economy was about four times what we initially anticipated, even with the volunteer assistance provided by UDM and other groups. This price was high for what was designed to be a temporary facility. Our board and staff are concerned about how long the facility can actually last since it is built around trailers. At the rate that they are being used, the shower, laundry and bathroom trailers are showing wear, and we could be left with well-built decks leading to rotting trailers, especially if we have hurricanes in the future. With the amount of money that we spent (and the time that it took to build), we should have considered alternatives to trailers, such as the simple buildings (medical and multipurpose room) designed and built by UDM.
What is the standout feature of the design and why?
Emily Bussen Wain: Every person may have a different answer, which is an amazing thing about our center. I have heard people describe it as an oasis in the middle of the city. Although I love our whole courtyard space, personally, for me it is our jasmine wall and overhang. What started 15 years ago as a couple vines has planted its roots and makes for a beautiful wall and overhang. It is so thick now that it offers protection from the rain. In the spring, the smell can overtake your senses in the most wonderful way.
How would you describe St. Joseph Rebuild Center and its core clientele?
Jessica Lovell: I always have described the Rebuild Center as a magical place. It has been difficult in ways to adapt to operations since COVID-19 because a drastic shift was necessary to keep everyone safe. Pre-COVID, Rebuild was a community center, a home, a place filled with art, music, laughter, hugs, and people — lots of people. Guests of the center are our homeless brothers and sisters who visit for services. Many services are offered, but the most popular are showers, phones, case management, and meals. Sometimes at the center you might see someone talking to themselves or someone others can’t see; sometimes you might see someone sleeping under a shade of jasmine; sometimes you may see someone helping another shave or cut their hair; sometimes you might see someone having an overdose or getting revived with Narcan, or possible someone having an outburst. There are always people talking about life and love, and often chatter about baseball or football. It is a place where people come together, some in need of the services offered, and some blessed to be able to help provide the services. It is a place where people learn about resilience and survival, and God is present every day. Whether guest, volunteer, staff, or visitor, you will see people helping people — love in action.
How do you set yourselves apart from organizations doing similar work in the city?
Bussen: I think our design does help set us apart from other agencies. Many social service agencies have their mission and services and have to fit it into a space that already exists. We are fortunate enough to have a space that was built for our exact purpose. Something as simple as having the restrooms separate from the sinks separate from the showers, actually allows us to serve more people at any given time. I remember at the old HTC (located in the parish center of Immaculate Conception Church), people would have to wait for someone to finish shaving before they could use the restroom or vice versa. Also, our open-air concept has been extremely beneficial these past couple of years, offering the protection of being outside during COVID.
How do you promote a positive work atmosphere for the staff?
Kenitha Grooms-Williams: [We work] to promote a positive work atmosphere for staff by engaging them in the decision-making process of how services are provided. The organization fosters open communication in order that staff members understand how their roles contribute to the success of the agency, as well as the guests that receive services.
What are your biggest challenges?
Jessica Lovell: There are so many needed updates that will allow for better services and a safer work environment. We need to raise over a million dollars for this, and it has to happen while we all have to fundraise for our individual organizations in order to keep them operational. There is so much that happens in one day, fundraising alone is a gigantic task. Fundraising to improve the center will be monumental for us.
What goals do you hope to meet in the next 12 months?
Paisleigh Kelley: At present, Harry Tompson Center’s operations are still limited in capacity due to COVID-19. The center looks forward to increasing capacity for its guests in our courtyard and working to establish a new normal for operations as COVID-19 moves from a pandemic to endemic stage. We are excited to host our annual fundraising event at the Rebuild Center in April, welcoming back our supporters to mix, mingle and celebrate the good work we do for our unhoused neighbors. We are in the nascent stages of embarking on a capital campaign to work toward the eventual renovation of our facility.