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Coffee and donuts spark homeless outreach at New Orleans Public Library

Coffee and donuts -- it’s a simple morning ritual for so many, but 2015 Tulane Master of Social Work graduate Lalo Narea is using the sugary combo to help engage New Orleans homeless people.

“Usually the vast majority of the conversation that we have is just chitchat,” he said. “But it can lead to other things. I’ll make some informal meetings to talk about things like help getting an ID or some other important part of daily life. It’s really about building community and engaging people.”

Stationed outside the New Orleans Public Library on Tulane and Loyola avenues, Narea leads the simple hour-long outreach every Tuesday morning starting at 9 a.m. with the help of library staff, fellow MSW graduates and Deborah Oliveira, who serves as assistant director of field education at the Tulane School of Social Work.

The idea came about as part of his professional project at the Tulane School of Social Work along with fellow MSW graduates Molly Fleder, Jessica Lovell and Lauren James. The project was a collaboration between library personnel, library patrons, Tulane and the YMCA Literacy Program that conducted a survey of library patrons to determine their needs and interests. The survey found that 60 percent of the individuals at the library during a week period were either currently experiencing homelessness, formerly homeless or at-risk of being homeless.

Taking cues from cities like San Francisco, Dallas and Greensboro, they started offering classes and other services to help the community, but he said he also wanted to ensure that the library had a better sense of community.

“There was just apathy among the patrons,” he said. “The people who were going here were just not engaged at all. They didn’t talk to each other or the staff. I’d like the library to be a hub that is open to anyone because that is step one to helping people.”

Thanks to a $1,500 Spark Innovation Award from the Taylor Center, Narea started the weekly meet up and free social work office hours following the free donuts and brew, donated fresh weekly by Congregation Coffee.

“It’s this idea of forming a community,” he said. “If people know each other and are happy to be here, they’ll respond better to outreach and feedback. It’s about building a community that supports and helps each other.”

Now, that the Spark Award has been exhausted, Narea is hoping that other Tulane social work students and community members will keep the outreach going.

“The next step is definitely keeping coffee and donuts,” he said. “This has a following, and new people show up every week. It’s amazing, so it would be a huge shame if we can’t keep it going.”

He said ideally there could be expanded social worker office hours to aid people affected by homelessness and poverty get the assistance that they need or maybe even organize a weekly forum to allow folks to get to know each other and share their stories. He added that maybe one day it would be incorporated into the city’s library model.

Oliveira served as advisor to the original professional project and is taking over the outreach until current masters students can be found to advance the outreach. Anyone interested in participating should contact Deborah at doliveir@tulane.edu or (504) 862-3494.