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JULY 2007

Part I: Series on Education of the Homeless
Covenant House: A Haven for Homeless Young People

By Gillian Granoff

A 17-year-old single mom wanders through the streets in the dead of night, kicked out of her parents’ home for refusing to have an abortion, a frightened runaway chooses a dangerous life on the streets over life at home subject to the abuse or neglect at the hands of an alcoholic and abusive step parent. Faces like these flock desperately each day into shelters with only the clothes on their back, with nowhere else to turn, feeling alone, confused and scared.

Covenant House, a 24-hour facility located on 42nd street and tenth, is one of the many shelters throughout the United States serving teens and young adults between the ages of 18-21. Covenant House’s mission is not to simply put a roof over their heads, but to empower youth with skills to help make a home for themselves. The road to their recovery is long and arduous.

Walking through its non-descript metal doors on the corner of 42nd and tenth, homeless children find not only refuge from cold and isolation but a “ covenant” with the staff and counselors. From the moment they walk through the doors they make a promise to themselves and its’ staff to turn their lives around. The terms of this covenant include making a commitment to finding a job during a thirty-day period.

The first stage on the road to their empowerment is to meet with an intake specialist. After a specialist assesses his or her needs, she/he matches the youth with a caseworker, helps to outline the rules of their stay and create a personalized plan. He/she is given a change of clothing and a room assignment with another resident. Learning to live side by side with roommates, is part of the experience of their treatment. Relationships are the foundation for their recovery. Men and women are deliberately separated during this period. As part of their program, residents share common space, have access to psychological and psychiatric resources, and are expected to build relationships.

During their 30-day residence in the 42nd street facility, residents must abide by strict curfews and spend the majority of their time meeting with their caseworker and pounding the pavement for a job.

When young people complete the 30 days at 42nd street, they earn their way to Covenant House’s Rites of Passage program.  At this phase in the program, the youth are expected to have gotten a job, pay rent and comply with a much more structured and rigid schedule. They learn skills to help them assume they will face beyond the walls of the shelter.

Covenant House’s partnership with several local businesses helps to provide additional support to its clients. Every two weeks, residents are expected to give a percentage of their paycheck to the coordinator of the shelter. Covenant House believes this practice instills within them the habit of paying bills, and teaches them to value and to manage their money. Although the clients often receive the money back to help cover the payments for a new apartment, the lessons they learn are invaluable.

Founded in 1972, Covenant House was a crisis center that protected and provided immediate refuge for street kids from the provocative lure of drugs, prostitution and dealers preying on the vulnerability. Since then it evolved into the largest privately funded nonprofit agency in North and Central America giving shelter and other services to homeless and runaway youth.

Now under the guidance of Sister Patricia Cruise, the mission has evolved to provide more long-term solutions to help residents unlearn patterns and self-destructive behaviors that might return them to a life of homelessness. This year Covenant House initiated a GED training program at its Brooklyn Resource Center. The program, which is open to the entire community, provides test preparation for the GED and courses in vocational training. In its first year the program employed 1 teacher and enrolled 50 students with plans to expand to reach a wider audience. One of their biggest challenges has been to help the kids raise their reading level beyond the 5th grade. In order to qualify to pass the GED, students are expected to read at least at ninth grade level.

Kevin Starks, Covenant House’s Director of Communications, originally came to Covenant House to work directly with the population. He went on to become the program’s Director of Communications. His experience is not unique. Covenant house’s success in nurturing potential and fostering responsible decision-making skills in the youth that enter its doors is mirrored equally by its dedication to the professional development of its employees. The dedication of its employees  and their intimate connection the children that walk through its’ doors is the key to it’s success.

Although Covenant House has an open door policy, Starks says the true barometer of its success will be when Covenant House can close its doors. Until that happens, the program will continue the fight to eradicate homelessness and to restore hope and security to the lives of countless youth throughout the world.#



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