Ozane: No one will fall through the crack

Published 5:00 am Monday, January 10, 2022

Roishetta Sibley Ozane, co-founder of the Vessel Project, is committed to ensuring that no one falls through the cracks when in need. In less than a year, Ozane has organized a winter-weather drive, a summer feeding program, a back-to-school drive, a Thanksgiving luncheon, a community Christmas party and helped case manage for countless residents grappling with hurricane recovery, homelessness and basic poverty.

“I’m a single mom of six. I’ve needed help and was turned down so I wanted to create a space to help people in a non-judgemental way,” she said.

While Ozane formalized her work last winter, she said all of her life’s experiences have prepared her for this moment to step out into her own organization. Her own tumultuous past relationship and her work at a local women’s shelter first opened her eyes to the many needs and obstacles that individuals face when dealt a difficult hand of cards, she said.

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“I realized how many women there were out there that were looking for help but the shelter was not a homeless shelter…They may be homeless and bring all of their children but that shelter wasn’t particularly for them if they were not escaping domestic abuse. All of that really resonated with me.”

The shelter also showed her how vital help with limited red tape can be to individuals struggling particularly as she had to refer individuals to other organizations with stringent requirements. “People think if you’re homeless you should be willing to do whatever it takes to get that help. But, if you’re at the point of feeling like you have nothing and nobody plus you have to walk some sort of tightrope, that can be the turning point in someone giving up— too many hoops, too much red tape…It’s stuck with me throughout the years.”

In fact, Vessel Project’s name comes from the willingness to give and serve with as few requirements as possible, she said. “People donate and we just give it right back to the community. We’re simply vessels.”

Working as a community health worker, her time with Americorp traveling the country and seeing a diversity of needs, meeting post-Hurricane Katrina needs for evacuees and working as paraprofessional with the public school system all served as building blocks of compassion and inspiration for her current work with Vessel Project. “All of those things that had happened in my life throughout those different life experiences, good and bad, were preparing me,” she said.

Last February’s winter storm was the beginning of her formalized work. When Ozane heard the announcements of the historic lows, she said all she could think about were people living in uninhabitable homes or in tents.

Out of her own pocket, she began paying for hotel rooms. “We had just gotten our stimulus check and I always try to something for someone else when I get things like that because it’s money I didn’t already count into my budget…I was doing that and when I looked up that whole stimulus was gone.”

Ozane knew there were plenty of residents still left to get out of the cold and began reaching out to other organizations when she noticed what limited options were available. “There was no shelter, Abraham’s tent wasn’t serving, Water’s Edge was gutted…I started tagging every agency I could think of. I was getting in everybody’s inbox.”

While a surprising number of people and organizations failed to respond, Ozane said many individuals did rise to the challenge. She worked with Josh Lewis, 2021 mayoral candidate, the Cajun Navy and leveraged the power of social media to feed and house many in need.

“People started sending us money on Cash App, Venmo and offering free rooms at L’Auberge or Coushatta— I was like ‘Oh my God, our community is the best in the world!’”

Over the course of the winter storm Vessel Project purchased 55 hotel rooms, provided three meals a day plus gallons of water and ensured that community members left with a backpack of whatever else they needed including items like baby supplies and tents.

Since February the organization has continued to nimbly meet the needs of community members with as little bureaucracy and requirements as possible. Moving into more of a special events and case management initiative, Ozane said her goal is to “help people on longer terms” always ensuring “they keep their dignity” through the process.

Learn more about Ozane and Vessel Project’s work by visiting www.thewatermain.org/in-deep-one-citys-year-of-climate-chaos.