Project Lazarus (also known as Lazarus House) is a live-in facility on Dauphine Street in New Orleans’ Upper Ninth Ward for people with AIDS. Founded in 1983, Project Lazarus is considered the oldest and largest residency of its kind in the Gulf Coast region. The success of Project Lazarus is due in large part to collaboration between LGBTQ groups and the Roman Catholic Church.
Project Lazarus combines aesthetic beauty, healthcare, and community-based volunteer resources to provide services for those with AIDS that have nowhere else to go. In addition, the Project is supported by an informal coalition of the Roman Catholic Church, the LGBTQ community, and the City of New Orleans. Project Lazarus represents an interface between charitable activism; Gay festive culture; and medical, municipal, and religious institutions.
Lazarus in the Bible
Project Lazarus takes its name from the New Testament. The name “Lazarus” comes from the Hebrew name Eleazar, meaning “God has helped.” In the New Testament, Lazarus is not one but two different men in two different gospels, Luke and John. Project Lazarus takes its name from the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke, as well as the man who Jesus resurrected from the dead in John.
In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells the story of Lazarus, a destitute man who was covered in sores and abandoned to die alone at the gate of a rich man’s house. Lazarus goes to Heaven, while the rich man who callously ignored him suffers the fires of Hell. In John 11:1-44, Lazarus is a wealthy friend of Jesus who dies because Jesus is not there to save him. 4 days later, Jesus risks life and limb to visit Lazarus at his tomb, and then raises him from the dead.
Origins of Lazarus House
Project Lazarus, initially called “Lazarus House,” was founded by laypeople associated with Tau House, a group started by the Catholic Church as an outreach to Catholics who, due to divorce or homosexuality, felt alienated from the Catholic community. They were asked to help a person with AIDS who was being discharged from Charity Hospital’s Infectious Disease Ward, but had nowhere to live.
When the program started, those who sought help were kept in the guesthouse of Tau House. Soon there were others, more than the small apartment could handle. The Archdiocese of New Orleans responded by offering the upstairs of an old convent next to Holy Trinity Church (built for the German Catholic community in 1848). Catholic Charities and New Orleans AIDS Task Force (NO/AIDS) worked together to provide for the needs of the new residence, first called “the Dwelling Place,” but then changed to “Project Lazarus.”
Initially, the program was staffed entirely by volunteers. Lazarus quickly became known as a place where people with AIDS could come to live when they had no home, or when friends and family could no longer care for them, and the number of people needing services grew. A full-time director was hired, and the program and staff increased. While residents lived at the residence at Holy Trinity, the office for Project Lazarus was kept in the Tau House. The location of residents was kept secret to prevent them from being attacked, as had happened in other places in the USA that housed people with AIDS.
In 1985, organizations such as the Mardi Gras Krewe of Armenius, the Demented Women, artist Robert Gordy, and French Quarter drag queen Ginger Snap came together to support Project Lazarus and plan the annual Halloween Bal Masque (which became a four-day dance festival, Halloween in New Orleans or HNO) to raise money.
Project Lazarus grew over the next decade to provide housing for 24 residents. When Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, it wrecked the residences, and funding fell significantly. Fewer celebrants attended HNO, which until then provided close to one third of the budget. But volunteers came in, cleaned up the debris, repaired the buildings, and slowly the residents came back, as did participants attending HNO. In 2008, Project Lazarus resumed capacity housing at 24 residents once more.
The mission of Project Lazarus is to care for people with AIDS who can no longer live on their own, whose families can no longer take care of them, or to give them temporary help during stressful times. Project Lazarus does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, religion, gender, economic status, sexual orientation, or disability. Each resident is provided with a room, phone, cable television, meals, transportation, recreation, social services, assistance with case management, help with medications, and access to ministries of different denominations and religions.
Volunteers provide many of the services necessary for Project Lazarus. These services include taking residents to medical appointments, providing companionship, cutting hair and manicures, cooking, gardening, and taking them to theaters. Volunteers also answer phones, shop for groceries, and assist in any way they can. Staff is there during times of crisis, for casual conversation, or to occasionally share a meal. A case manager provides care plans that are regularly updated, and a care team reviews each resident to ensure access to off-site services. Elderly residents and the terminally ill have on-site home health and hospice services.
Residents are classified into three categories. The first two are temporary: those who stay there to give their usual caretakers a temporary respite, and those rendered helpless because of recent surgery or chemotherapy. The terminally ill and those whose disabilities prevent them from being able to take care of themselves are eligible to be permanent residents.
Although affiliated with the Catholic Church (the archbishop of the Archdiocese of New Orleans is the Board of Advisors chairperson), Project Lazarus is an independent organization and not under the auspices of Catholic charities.
Project Lazarus consists of two two-story buildings. Each floor is considered a separate residence house, and each house accommodates six residents in small group-home settings.
There are large rooms and comfortable furniture downstairs in the main building for lounging and socializing, as well as a kitchen, dining room, and office space. Colorful art adorns the walls. Outside are shaded areas and tables surrounded by plants. A statue of Mary and one of St. Francis are on the grounds, as well as two plaques: one from Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O’Donnell on a low wall, and another in honor of Halloween (or Halloween’s) in New Orleans set in the ground. A circuit labyrinth for those who want to do the walking meditation representing the spiritual journey to Jerusalem is also in the garden. A wall surrounds both buildings. The entrance to the Project Lazarus residence is unmarked.
Ritual for the Departed
Many people who stay at the facility eventually move on to other living quarters. But some of them come to Lazarus to die. When a resident approaches death, a staff member stays with them 24 hours a day. When the resident passes on, a candle is lit in the room and flowers are placed there in memoriam.
Herren, Greg and Paul Willis, eds. Love, Bourbon Street: Reflections of New Orleans. Minneapolis: Consortium, 2006.
Weems, Mickey. The Fierce Tribe: Masculine Identity and Performance in the Circuit. Logan, UT: Utah State University, 2008.