In 1988, Marion Strauss, an occupational therapist working in mental health at Charity Hospital, noticed two troubling trends. One, nearly everyone over age 50 who was suffering from major depression—often due simply to loneliness or grief after the death of a spouse or to a chronic health problem—was being put in a nursing home, therefore losing their home. Two, many people in New Orleans were facing the specter of homelessness for one reason or another. Strauss and her husband had an idea: why not bring the two groups together to meet the needs of both?
That year, Strauss founded Shared Housing of New Orleans. With no office, staff or salary, Strauss ran the organization from home and during her breaks from work. Today the organization still operates on a shoestring budget, though they now have a small office and four part-time staff.
Here’s how it works: a registered nurse conducts separate interviews with homeowners—elderly and/or disabled people who are at risk of losing their homes—and homeseekers—those who, for a wide variety of reasons, need a place to live for a while. The needs, abilities, personality and preferences of each are assessed—including a background check and a mental health screening. Then, the home is checked to make sure there is a suitable second bedroom, and the nurse makes sure that the medical and personal care needs of the homeowner will be met in some way.
When a potential match is made, the homeseeker and homeowner interview each other at the homeowner’s residence, facilitated by the assigned nurse to make sure both parties ask all the important questions of each other. If the match seems promising, the homeseeker will stay in the home for a two night trial period.
If the stay goes well and both parties want to move forward, Shared Housing will help them draw up a six-month renewable contract. Generally, homeseekers will provide light housekeeping and companionship, and they may also help out with other household duties such shopping, errands or meal preparation. In exchange for their services, the homeowner provides free room and board.
Most homeseekers have a part-time job or take classes while staying in the residence and regaining stability in their lives. The average length of stay is 1.5 years, after which time most homeseekers are ready to venture out on their own, and a new match can be made for the homeowner.
“It’s all free. Nobody pays anybody,” says Strauss, who still digs into her own pocket as needed to pay for necessities such as bedding, which the homeseekers usually do not have. “We are the only nonprofit doing this who doesn’t charge.”
Currently, Shared Housing is in need of more homeowners than homeseekers, though they are always open to taking both. Shared Housing of New Orleans can be reached at www.sharedhousingofneworleans.org or by calling (504) 896-2575.
Shared Housing of New Orleans has received a grant from the Pratt-Stanton Manor Fund at the Greater New Orleans Foundation.