Last Thursday night, a couple hundred people donned special sleeping bags called “empowerment coats” and volunteered to sleep on the street in New York City and in 15 other cities to raise awareness of youth homelessness. At 41st and 10th Avenue, there was a multiple Tony Award winner who sang an Irish lullaby beforehand. There was the general manager of the New York Yankees. There was a representative from the NBA. There was wind, rain, and unseasonable warmth. But the stars were Covenant House and their youth clientele.
None of us can control the circumstances of our births. The where, when, and why we have nothing to do with; good and bad life circumstances are more like luck. This becomes especially clear when looking at the issues surrounding youth homelessness. Through the journey of two young women we can learn more about this largely invisible issue, how programs like the Covenant House empower youth to take control of their lives, and how those of us more fortunate can help.
It’s hard to tell just how many homeless youth there are. Some organizations have estimated the number at about 1.7 million, while others estimate more than two million. For youth, the very definition of “homeless” is nebulous. By the time a kid gets to the Covenant House, or “The Cov,” they may have been couch surfing at different friend’s homes, train hopping at night, in and out of shelters and other facilities, or any combination of those for years. There’s also the runaway/throwaway factor. Many youth may live in an undeniably dangerous situation, such as with a family member who rejects their identity, and decide themselves to leave as opposed to being thrown out. About 40 percent of homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Other factors that contribute to homelessness include family financial stress, mental health or substance abuse issues, and child abuse or neglect. Whatever the circumstance, unfortunately, there will always be a certain percentage of youth who’ve been forced to leave their birth homes.
Ineja, 20, and Ashley, 19, are two bright and precocious young women. A future pediatrician and child psychologist, respectively, they look to each other to finish sentences and call each other best friends. Ashley despises curfew and Ineja, originally from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, still doesn’t feel totally safe in New York. They’re each looking for appropriate college programs to suit them academically.
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Ashley’s journey to “The Cov” began early by way of the foster care system. She moved around from place to place until high school, when she got focused on ending the cycle herself. She saved for an apartment not too long ago. Inviting a cousin to stay with her—not knowing about the drugs and crowd he’d bring with him—proved a bad move, and after being evicted and googling youth shelters, she landed at Covenant House. “My first day here was challenging. I didn’t know anything about ‘The Cov,’” she told Rewire.
“I was one of six girls in my family,” Ineja said in an interview with Rewire. “Growing up was really hard. My stepfather was an extreme alcoholic and he became very violent. Once the courts dealt with him, we were house hopping. I was like a second mom to my little sisters … working and going to high school at the same time, and helping to pay rent and electricity. There were times we ate cereal three times a day. My mom eventually said I was getting too old, so she gave me 30 days to leave. I was working at Burger King making $7.25 an hour. That’s not a lot. A friend of mine at Burger King had a friend at Covenant House. So with that last Burger King paycheck, I took Amtrak to Covenant House.”
With 27 locations across the United States, Latin America, and Canada, Covenant House helps about 60,000 homeless young people per year to achieve any number of their own academic, professional, and health care goals. The Covenant House model emphasizes education, hard work, and working through consequences after bad decisions.
(The organization itself is no stranger to scandal: In the early 1990s, Covenant House’s founder stepped down after allegations surfaced of sexual abuse and financial misconduct. Sister Mary Rose McGeady, former associate director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Brooklyn, took over as president of the nonprofit shortly thereafter.)
“It’s definitely our young people who actually do the work [at Covenant House]. We want to make sure as many of our young people as possible get a credential, get a diploma, get certified in a trade, go to college so they can aspire to that livable wage,” said Andre Ford, the educational/vocational training manager at Covenant House. “Not to get too wonky, but it’s proven over and over again that the more educated a young person is, it significantly decreases the possibility that they will be homeless again,” he told Rewire.
Renata Alexis started as a volunteer at Covenant House 18 years ago, when she says she was young and needed a job. She is now the deputy director for the shelter program. “For the past seven-and-a-half, most eight years I’ve been working at the mother and child program. To come in every day and see not just the young person, but a young person who they’re carrying behind them, or is pregnant with and struggling to bring a child into the world, wanting the best for who they’re bringing into the world—it’s emotional,” Alexis said. “It’s amazing. It’s strength that I never had that I don’t know if I’d have if I was in their same predicament.”
The Covenant House Mother/Child program offers services to homeless pregnant women and mothers with young children. The program focuses on securing permanent housing, health care, clinical counseling, employment and training, and parenting skills. It also provides a full-service nursery for parents attending school.
“For [young people] to allow us to help them, is a testament to everybody that’s here,” Alexis said. “When does helping start? It starts when there’s a call, ‘Do you have a bed?’ That tone, that response from the administrative staff, the security guard who answers the phone, just explaining how the program works, allowing us to start that process to help them become independent, stable, contributing members of society. It never gets old. Everyone has something unique and special to bring to the table.”
Before the event last Thursday, named the Covenant House Sleep Out Executive Edition, fundraisers raised $1.4 million. It costs Covenant House on average $1,000 per person to provide food, clothing, shelter, effective clinical counseling, job training, educational programs, and life skills programs at the New York shelter.
As for Ineja and Ashley, they’re getting guidance, skills, education, and safety. They’re also ready to pay it forward. “From 4 to 7 I was in one home. Then I started being moved around. I didn’t have parents [to look to for help],” said Ashley. “I didn’t have siblings. Nobody. The reason I chose my career and the age group I want to work with—7 to 17—that’s the age when you need someone to help you decide what you want to do in your life. I didn’t have anybody there. The only people I have are at ‘The Cov’ and I appreciate it so greatly. I want to be that person for someone else.”
Both young ladies have a maturity way beyond their years. They both seem to have this phase in their lives in perspective. “I graduated from the job readiness program. So now I’m working with my case worker on getting scholarships,” Ineja said. “I want to work with special-needs children.”
And they seem to have a very sunny outlook on their work at “The Cov”: “It turned out to be something very positive,” Ashley said. “I’m changing my life a lot. It’s helped me face a lot of stuff. It’s helped me learn a lot about myself. Helping me to be as successful as I’m trying to be in my life.”
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to explicitly state the allegations of sexual abuse against Covenant House’s founder in the late 1980s and early ’90s.