Dubuque: Nano’s Dream Realized

18 Jun, 2019

Pictured above, Dubuque Presentation Sisters Julie Marsh (left) and Mary Lou Specha (right) offer hospitality, love and compassion to the homeless women and children in the New Orleans area through their ministry at Hotel Hope.

Two generous hearted and spirited Presentation women, Sisters Julie Marsh and Mary Lou Specha, are living and offering radical hospitality to homeless women and children in the Katrina devastated area of New Orleans, Louisiana – an unfulfilled dream of Presentation foundress, Nano Nagle.

Hotel Hope, a temporary home for women with children in New Orleans, grew out of the inspiration of a small group of concerned people in New Orleans. Sister Mary Lou experienced firsthand the plight of the families, who had no way to support their children, and no place to go. Having worked to address generational poverty in New Orleans since 2008, she had witnessed post-Katrina New Orleans and quickly became involved in the newly-formed Hotel Hope board of directors in 2012.

Within two years, Sister Mary Lou realized her participation on the board was not enough to get the shelter up and running. She was named executive director of Hotel Hope, accountable to its board of directors. In this role, she solicited help from sisters of various religious communities interested in this endeavor as well as local citizens interested in helping. The mission statement was defined: Hotel Hope is a nonprofit, interfaith organization that provides housing to women and their children, in a safe and loving atmosphere while guiding them to self-sufficiency and self-empowerment through intensive case management.

The original concept of the shelter was one of hospitality and dignity with a hotel model. Finding such a site was the next challenge. During an extensive search in many different locations, the board of directors found a building on Broad Street that once housed the Dominican Sisters who taught in the former St. Matthias School. When the school closed it was used as a shelter for women with children operated by Catholic Charities of New Orleans. Following the damages of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it was no longer occupied.

Sister Mary Lou and the board discussed the prospect of using this building with the pastor of the newly-formed Blessed Trinity Parish. The parish was excited about the collaboration with Hotel Hope.

On November 21, 2013, Hotel Hope received a tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service so that the capital campaign, Making Room for Hope, could be launched to initiate the renovation and begin operations.

Sister Julie joined the effort in the summer of 2014, to become the director of outreach. Due to the generosity of the Dubuque Sisters of the Presentation and benefactors, Sisters Mary Lou and Julie were initially able to work without the concern of bringing in a salary. This enabled them to write grants for forthcoming salaries for themselves as well as for the case workers.

The intended site of Hotel Hope was located in the heart of New Orleans, where 100 percent of the properties were flooded by Hurricane Katrina with up to 10 feet of floodwater. It was brought to the attention of the board that the building was eligible for FEMA funds so the process for FEMA funding began. With the help of many experts and in conversation with FEMA, the negotiations continue. Despite the obstacles in finding a suitable place to house women with children, the mission and passion to serve the most vulnerable has always been a priority.

Due to this long delay, Hotel Hope’s board of directors voted in 2016 to purchase a blighted house, damaged also in Katrina, near the future site of Hotel Hope. Within seven months, the two-bedroom house, named Hotel Hope Chalet, was receiving guests. Each family’s stay was approximately 30 to 45 days, until they were placed in permanent housing. Hotel Hope Chalet has permanently housed 22 mothers and over 50 children and continued case management with them up to a year to make sure that they did not fall back into homelessness.

In 2018, the ongoing communication between FEMA and Hotel Hope’s legal counsel had still not achieved a final resolution. At the same time, the Hotel Hope board received news of a motel for sale in close proximity to the intended site of Hotel Hope. After abundant prayer and the generosity of a major donor, as well as the support of the Sisters of the Presentation, Hotel Hope purchased a 24-room motel on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard equipped with all the furnishings needed for a safe and comfortable stay for a family awaiting permanent housing. The purchase was made on August 15, 2018, and The Phyllis M. Taylor, Hotel Hope MLK opened appropriately on September 27, 2018, the Feast of Saint Vincent De Paul.

The full-time team of Sister Mary Lou, executive director; Sister Julie, director of operations; two case managers and the director of development are working assiduously to provide hospitality and support for all their guests. The New Orleans community, with over 40 volunteers, is genuinely committed to serving the guests at Hotel Hope and engaged in learning the complexity of family homelessness. Volunteers also bring in a home-cooked hot meal every evening so that the families can enjoy a nutritious meal.

The Phyllis M. Taylor, Hotel Hope MLK recently celebrated two years of service to women with children in a housing crisis, having sheltered 60 families with approximately 135 children, and assisted more than 150 families and nearly 300 children with housing applications, security deposits, food, clothing, furniture, hygiene products and other needs.

As Hotel Hope continues to wait for word from FEMA about the Broad Street site, the staff and volunteers work daily to bring alive the core values of love, compassion and empowerment at Hotel Hope MLK. With city-wide partners, Hotel Hope MLK continues to provide intensive case management, individual and group counseling, financial and budgeting classes, physical and behavioral health screening, play therapy, parenting classes, educational opportunities and job readiness/career training among many other services.

Sisters Julie and Mary Lou reflect on Nano Nagle’s purpose in life: “She chose to be where many others didn’t want to be … to tend to those who were poor or made poor by unjust systems … to be with those on the fringe of society regardless of how they got there. It was shared by a retreat director that Nano Nagle wanted to build a safe place for women to live – a ‘refuge’ from the challenge of being homeless. Unfortunately, she did not live long enough to fulfill that dream. Hotel Hope is an initiative to keep Nano’s dream alive in New Orleans.”