The First 72+ Will Rebuild More Lives With New Housing

Photo Courtesy of Danae Columbus

Dozens of formerly incarcerated people (FIP) and their supporters gathered earlier this week at the groundbreaking of The First 72+ new transitional housing in Mid-City. “Re-entry is not a fairytale and it is not a straight line. This celebration today shows us what is possible when a community shows up for you and stays by your side,” said Kelly Orians, co-executive director of The First 72+. 

Among those on hand for the milestone were Mayor LaToya Cantrell, City Council President Helena Moreno, District Attorney Jason Williams, Sheriff Marlin Gusman, retired Criminal Court Judge Arthur Hunter, current Criminal Court Judges Marcus DeLarge, Karen Herman, Robin Pittman and Kimya Holmes as well as Magistrate Judge Juana Lombard. 

The First 72+ is based on the guiding principle of the formerly incarcerated helping the formerly incarcerated. Founded by six men including two brothers -Ben and Tyrone Smith -who had all personally experienced the criminal justice system and helped one another upon release, the organization was designed to stop the cycle of incarceration.  

Louisiana has the highest per capita prison populations in the world and a disappointing recidivism rate of over 30%. According to statistics from the Louisiana Department of Corrections, one out of every two people released from prison in Louisiana will return within five years. While for the first time there are currently more people being released from prison than returning, very few re-entry services exist, especially in the New Orleans area.  

Among the biggest challenges people face upon release is securing stable housing. In fact, many candidates for probation and parole are denied release because they haven’t been able to line up appropriate living accommodations.  

Prior to incorporating in 2014, the Smith brothers and other board members were personally providing ad hoc services to those returning home.  After realizing a more coordinated, sustainable effort was needed, the founders established a partnership with the Next Generation of Original Morning Star Baptist Church to open a five bed transition house. Nathan Brown was its first resident. 

Today with a dedicated team of professionals, The First 72+ offers a full array of services including case management, peer mentorship, free legal services, small business incubation and their “pay it forward” communal loan fund. By providing housing and other services to FIPs when they are most vulnerable – during the first 72 hours after being released from custody – recidivism has decreased. “Over the years we have had the honor of welcoming home more than 176 people,” said Orians. Many more have been served by programs offered by The First 72+.

The Drug Court operating within Orleans Parish Criminal District Court has frequently referred clients to The First 72+.  Retired Criminal Court Judge Arthur Hunter who attended the groundbreaking said that The First 72+ is totally necessary. “If we want formally incarcerated persons to safely return to society and rediscover themselves, we need programming once they enter prison and support when they are released,” explained Hunter. He also credits Judge Laurie White and FIP advocate Norris Henderson for their roles.   

To be built at the corner of Perdido and Dupree streets, the new structure is adjacent to the existing First 72+ transitional house which already accommodates formerly incarcerated individuals. The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office is leasing the land to The First 72+ for a nominal fee of $1 annually.  “When I was approached about creating a facility that would help more of our returning citizens, I jumped at the chance to help,” said Gusman.

 “In 2018 the dream of designing and building our own house became a reality when we were able to secure the lease from the Sheriff’s office for the vacant lot next door and partner with The Office of Jonathan Tate (OJT), which provided pro-bono architecture services,” said Orians. 

They conducted focus groups with current and former residents and evaluated historic lessons learned. “Working together we set a goal to create designs that would be replicable and affordable as well as grounded in our commitment to building healthy and healing environments for formerly incarcerated persons and the communities to which they return,” Orians explained. 

The designs for the new 3,200 square foot house were recently featured in ARCHITECT magazine and were recognized at the 68th Annual Progressive Architecture Awards ceremony.  OJT is known for their ability to use inventive land strategies coupled with superior design. By reclaiming otherwise vacant and unused parcels, they have been able to develop new home ownership opportunities in several New Orleans neighborhoods.  

Planned to accommodate eight persons, The First 72+ prototype house creates a more contemporary and affordable version of a traditional New Orleans shotgun double. 

Clad in fiber cement board and batten siding, the structure’s ground floor will offer office and shared living spaces.  Four two-person bedrooms with separate baths and separate staircases are planned for the second floor. The building’s proposed saw-toothed sloped roofs offer a unique visual. 

OJT worked hard to maximize the building utility and minimize energy use. Their emphasis is on the material and equipment selection for features that have the greatest impact on energy use such as windows and mechanical systems. In those cases, they are employing the best, most efficient equipment the budget will allow along with optimizing ways to reduce the use of air condition systems by installing operable windows. High ceilings will help with circulation and allow hot air spaces to pool above the zone actually inhabited.

Also included in the building’s design are highly functional spaces that will host a full complement of services clients including health care, job placement and education that FIP have come to expect from The First 72+.  

Future plans calls for The First 72+ to build additional residential structures in nine New Orleans neighborhoods. Walter Zehner is the project’s engineer. Edifice Builders is handling the construction. OJT estimates construction costs of $383,000. Already $308,094 has been raised with another $150,000 needed to complete project funding including furniture, staff and equipment.    

The First 72+ is a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization. Funding for this project came from The RosaMary Foundation, Parker United Methodist Church and dozens of individuals, businesses and foundations. Other partners include VOTE, Baptist Community Ministries, Entergy, Operation Restoration, LaCOR, the Kellogg Foundation, Capital One, The Justice and Accountability Center, Orleans Public Defenders, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Foundation for Louisiana, AT&T, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, Gulf Coast Bank & Trust and Echoing Green.

Orians is the glue that has successfully held The First 72+ together for several years. She will be leaving the organization and New Orleans in the coming weeks to take advantage of new opportunities. Replacing Orians as co-executive directors will be Chad Sanders, outgoing director of economic empowerment, and Pastor Tyrone Smith, outgoing chaplain. Co-founder Ben Smith recently passed away. T-shirts are being sold in his memory to benefit The First 72+.    

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