Lorelei Ashe has lived in New Orleans for eight years. “But my soul knew it was home on my first visit in the early ’90s,” she says.
As director of community relations for Grace at the Greenlight, Ashe serves one of the city’s most unconventional nonprofits. The organization was founded on two key principles: Homeless people have few choices – even when begging, they can take only what is given. And besides food, clothing and shelter, homeless people’s basic needs include love and compassion.
Since 2014, Grace has served more than 54,000 meals to the homeless. Its “I’m Going Home” program has reunited 800 people with their families by providing transportation, documentation and essential needs during travel. At the 3-month follow up, only 5% of people are back on the streets after being united.
Homelessness may not seem like an ingredient in the tourism and hospitality industry. But for Ashe, the two are inextricably linked. How can a city open its arms to visitors, she asks, if it can’t care for its most vulnerable residents?
Q: What do you enjoy most about living in New Orleans?
I love the joy, the fact that New Orleans is about living life fully and that this multicultural soup is a celebration at its core.
Q: Tell us what the Grace at the Greenlight organization is all about.
Our founder is an attorney and businessman who lives in the Garden District and works in the CBD. Going back and forth each day on his commute, he stopped and talked at length with homeless people he saw along the way. He listened to their stories and felt called to do something about it. He started the Grace’s Meals with Love program, because he realized basic needs include food, water and community.
Q: The “I’m Going Home” program is so unique. How does it work?
So many people on the streets do have a place to go, they just don’t have a way to get there. Often, their loved ones don’t have much extra, but they do have a space and the desire to help. So, we provide transportation, food and supplies for the journey and reunite homeless people with their loved ones. The real reason this works is the extensive casework that we do, making sure both parties are aware of what needs to happen for the homeless person to make a successful transition and a fresh start. We’re excited that at our three-month follow up, we find that about 95 percent of Going Home participants don’t go back on the streets.
Q: How important is the hospitality and tourism industry to the New Orleans economy and the livelihood of our locals?
One of the things so great about New Orleans is how the residents love all the things about the city that tourists do. We love to share our city – the parades, the food, the history. The magic here is made stronger every time another visitor hears “Welcome home!” and falls in love. Hospitality and tourism allow people who live here to stay here and for new people to discover us.
Q: We use #nolaNOW as a celebration of New Orleans’ resilience – how far we’ve come and how far we plan to go economically, creatively, physically, etc. What does #nolaNOW mean to Grace At The Greenlight?
Every single day at Grace I see and hear people who have fallen on hard times – every meal they share with our volunteers, every time we help them connect, they rise. Seeing our participants begin new lives, find work, help each other and take steps towards self-reliance, that is #nolaNOW.
Q: Where do you see New Orleans, as a whole, going in the next five years?
We’re growing. We’re booming, and that can be scary. But I know that the culture of New Orleans will entice newcomers. I’ve lived in cities like San Francisco during booms, but I’ve never lived anywhere that takes each newcomer and turns them into a protector and a fierce guardian of the culture. I believe that New Orleans will be a force to be reckoned with as we celebrate our tri-centennial. And I believe that we will take care of our whole community as we thrive.
Complete the sentence, “New Orleans will…
Always be my home.