Even though it was cold and damp Saturday, Daryl Martin, 47, sat in the side yard of the Ozanam Inn, the longtime shelter on Camp Street for homeless men.
Bundled up in two jackets, he spent the morning listening to the radio through earphones and pondering the twists and turns that his life had taken.
Martin felt better able to contemplate his future, he said, because of the shelter’s handsome new set of benches, designed by students from the Tulane University School of Architecture and officially dedicated and blessed during a ceremony Saturday morning.
In the yard, a raised wooden deck now holds three rows of slatted pine benches, set high enough to accommodate the bulky bags that homeless people often carry.
Each bench also has a high back so people can lean back comfortably and maybe even take a nap. Some have small tabletops next to them, for those who want to read or play checkers or chess.
Overhead, the morning sunlight was softened by a translucent polymer canopy imprinted with words such as “inspire,” “faith” and “love” held within an undulating blue-metal frame.
What used to be an ugly parking lot was transformed by 13 students from the Albert Jr. and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design, a community-design center at the Tulane School of Architecture.
The center, which works on projects in underserved communities, chose the Ozanam’s yard out of more than 30 proposals submitted by local nonprofits.
The students designed and built everything themselves, said professor Doug Harmon, who noted that it was Nathaniel Cooper, an Ozanam success story who is now living in his own apartment, who suggested the inspiring overhead words.
“He thought the words would help to encourage the guys out here,” Harmon said.
The overriding question posed to students working on the project was, “How can architecture affirm the dignity of people that use it?” Harmon said. So the benches were built of soft wood and set onto a deck, raising the people and their bags off the ground and out of the rain.
For the first half of the 20th century, the Ozanam’s three-story brick building was owned by the United Ancient Order of Druids, which paraded after Rex into the 1930s. The group hosted big parties and dances in its parlors and dining rooms.
The site was sold to the St. Vincent de Paul Society in the middle of the century and has been run as the Ozanam Inn since 1955, when the 800 block of Camp Street was part of a large Skid Row area, said Deacon Biaggio DiGiovanni, who has worked at the inn since 1992 and is known as “G.”
The lot next door — where the benches now stand — was purchased in the early 1980s, to get the homeless people off the inn's front sidewalk, he said.
For years, anyone who has visited the shelter during the day has been directed outside, to a single line of gray wooden benches that sat against the edge of the homeless shelter.
“The old benches were narrow, uncomfortable, raggedy benches and they sat on top of this raggedy parking lot,” Martin said, pointing to the span of pockmarked asphalt in front of him. “So you couldn’t get them to stay still. If one person sat at one end and another person sat on the other, the bench would seesaw back and forth.”
Ozanam Executive Director Clarence Adams nodded at Martin’s description. “It was dingy at best,” he said. “Not very attractive at all.”
What Adams particularly liked about the students’ “community-engaged” process was that they included the men who use the shelter’s yard in their project, through interviews, surveys and design critiques.
Martin, who has periodically come through “the Oz” for the past five years as he has struggled to conquer his addictions, still had some criticisms to offer Saturday. He said the students still had a few leaks in the canopy to repair. And he wondered about the placement of the front overhang, saying that when the rain comes down in sheets, no one can sit in the front row of benches.
“But I can’t say anything more. Because overall, this is great,” he said, patting the slatted pine bench next to him.
Graduate students Chris Longman and Lauren Taylor, both 26, said the rain leaks should soon be sealed. Their to-do list for the Ozanam space also includes phone chargers and heaters, they said.
A few feet away, Joseph Mitchell, 55, stretched out his 6-foot, 5-inch frame to show that the benches are roomy enough for him. “They fit a tall fella,” he said.
Mitchell, a welder who is saving up for an apartment and a car, likes the tables built next to the benches, where he could put a cup of coffee while he read the newspaper. And he especially liked the raised wood floor, which kept his feet off the cold, hard ground and its puddles.
“Sitting here, I don’t feel quite so homeless,” Mitchell said.