While lively crowds tend to be the rule at Tipitina’s, the one that gathered on May 27 was significant. A benefit concert titled “Musicians Bringing Musicians Home” boasted an impressive list of headliners, including the Indigo Girls, Damien Kulash from pop-rock band OK Go, Matt Nathanson, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Al “Carnival Time” Johnson. One of the highlights was Bonerama backing Kulash for David Bowie’s “Rock and Roll Suicide,” which he chose, he said, because while driving through the city, “the phrase, ‘You are not alone’ stuck in my mind.”
The concert-goers on this particular night were largely unfamiliar with the concert’s beneficiary, Sweet Home New Orleans (SHNO), a new, as-yet unsung community aid program with a distinctive mission.
“SHNO is an umbrella organization made up of 11 non-profit organizations that have been working with the music community since Katrina,” says Jordan Hirsch, program director. “We’re a facilitator for people with resources, putting them in touch with the people in need.”
The fruit of year-long discussions between local artists’ relief groups like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation and the Musicians’ Clinic, Sweet Home was built to address problems inherent in the piecemeal layout of those agencies.
“We felt we needed to work together,” says Don Marshall, president of the Jazz and Heritage Foundation. “We came up with this idea of a one-stop shop, and trying to deal holistically with people’s needs.”
Enter Sweet Home New Orleans (SHNO).
“Our role is really two-fold,” says Hirsch. “First, it’s as an air-traffic control for other agencies so they can each contribute what they can to the client. Then, when it comes to housing issues, we step in directly.”
Sweet Home employs a team of social workers that engage head to head with “standard-bearers”—musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, and social aid and pleasure club members—struggling to return home and, once there, to help them make ends meet. They assess what an artist needs to get back on his or her feet and attempt to provide it, either out of their own funding if it’s housing-related, or through the programs of partner agencies.
According to Hirsch, Sweet Home’s focus on housing is dictated by the current situation. Nearly two years after Katrina, property prices and rent around New Orleans remain at levels unmanageable for many artists. “People are having a hard time formulating a plan because it’s so expensive,” he says.
“The housing issue is such a vast one, more than any single agency can handle,” says Bill Taylor, executive director of the Tipitina’s Foundation. “Everybody has different needs. Some people rent, some people buy.”
The Tipitina’s Foundation is one of Sweet Home’s partners, along with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, Renew Our Music, New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, the American Federation of Musicians, the Arabi Wrecking Krewe, the Mardi Gras Indians Hall of Fame, Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans, the New Orleans Social Aid & Pleasure Club Task Force and WWOZ. Sweet Home also works closely with national organizations like MusiCares and the Actors’ Fund of America.
“We act as a referral service,” says Hirsch, “and those referrals work in two directions—referrals from SHNO to our partner agencies, and then those agencies, if they hear from someone that can benefit from SHNO, they come to us. We’re the clearinghouse for people in need.”
Despite its ambitious role, Sweet Home New Orleans’ short history means that there are many potential clients who remain unfamiliar with the program or are confused by its function as both intermediary and housing-aid provider.
“It’s a complicated program,” Hirsch says. “We’re hoping that, as we grow, we’ll be in a position to get the word out more and more. We’re also using the collective reach of the collaborators to contact as many people as possible.”
Sweet Home has compiled the contact information for 2,500 artists who have been in contact with one or more of the partner agencies. The plan is simple and novel: to contact these individuals, stay in touch, and address problems before a crisis point is reached. “Our goal is to build a system and an infrastructure that’s strong enough to serve this community into the future,” Hirsch says.
The benefit at Tipitina’s provided some valuable word-of-mouth for Sweet Home, and also a chance to recruit influential national musicians to the cause. Prior to the show, Kulash, the Indigo Girls and the rest attended meetings and were given a tour of hurricane-damaged areas, including Dr. Michael White’s flooded house. The hope is that events like “Musicians Bringing Musicians Home”—sponsored by the Future of Music Coalition and Air Traffic Control—will place New Orleans’ artists in the spotlight, and in doing so provide funding for their continued return.
Sweet Home New Orleans will make sure it reaches the right pockets.