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The One Question Every Homeless Child Wants to Hear

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When a child first walks through the doors at the Pennsylvania Covenant House’s Crisis Center in Philadelphia, he likely hasn’t eaten, bathed or slept in days. He is welcomed with the promise of a warm bed and a simple question: “Would you like something to eat?” The child breathes a sigh of relief. He has found sanctuary.

There are a record 1.6 million homeless children in the United States, a number that has increased sharply every year since the economic crash in 2007, and a quarter of all homeless Americans. It climbs to 40% if you include the 18-21 year olds that Covenant House also serves. The official counts, though, are widely thought to be grave underestimates.

These children go hungry twice as often as other children; develop serious emotional and behavioral problems three times as often; and suffer from acute and chronic medical illness four times as often (NCFH 2011 Report). The well-documented physiological impacts of traumatic stress—fueled by the severe poverty, lack of stable living situation and healthcare, and neglect and abuse that characterize youth homelessness—cripple the healthy development of a young body and mind during these critical years of growth.

So when a child comes in to Covenant House’s emergency youth shelter in the Germantown section of Philly, “We don’t say ‘fill out a form,”’ explains Associate Executive Director Hugh Organ. “It’s always ‘are you hungry?’”

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This no-questions-asked, open-intake policy is unique among homeless shelters, as is Covenant House’s dedication to meeting kids’ basic needs before anything else. A shower and a good night’s sleep in one of the center’s 51 beds may be next in order for the newcomer. Most of the kids will require immediate medical care from the on-site doctor. And almost all of the children who come in will need help fulfilling another fundamental need that most of us have never considered being deprived of: a form of identification. “85% of the kids who come to us have no way to prove they are who they say they are,” Organ notes.

These initial interactions constitute a child’s very first step along Covenant House’s “continuum of care”: the provision of immediate sanctuary and unconditional love. “A lot of these kids have been burned by just about every adult who’s entered their lives,” explains Organ. “By meeting those basic needs first, we start to build trust… then they’re able to open up to us and tell us what’s going on.” He continues, “they’re more willing to work with us as a result of meeting those basic needs first.”

Covenant House builds connections with thousands more homeless kids still living on the streets, as well—reaching 5,000 every year with its street outreach program. Four or five nights a week, a street team targets high-risk areas, where they hand out essentials like food and soap to the children who aren’t quite ready to make the leap and come into the Crisis Center—often due to fear, distrust, skepticism or sheer teenage hard-headedness. The idea is to forge bonds of trust with the children, in the hopes that they will eventually ask Covenant House for help turning their life around.

Where are the kids on our streets coming from?
Most of the 450 adolescents who stay at the Crisis Center annually split pretty evenly into two categories: those under 18 who are runaways, and 18-21 year olds with no place to go.

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The young runaways are often fleeing abuse or exploitation; 41% of kids at the Crisis Center are victims of physical or sexual abuse. Especially vulnerable populations include LGBTQ youth rejected by their families, and victims of human trafficking and sex slavery, an increasingly powerful (and often overlooked) threat in Philadelphia.

Most of the older kids—though not legally juveniles—were forced into homelessness for the first time after turning eighteen. Estimates vary widely, but anywhere from 25 – 40% of adolescents aging out of the child welfare and juvenile justice system will become homeless by their mid-twenties, as they have virtually no means to support themselves.

And then there are the many young adults who’ve simply been kicked out. “Their families just have too many mouths to feed,” Organ says. “’You’re 18 so you’ve got to go.’”

Covenant House also sees a number of homeless teenage moms, hosting at least four families at any given time.

Covenant House’s Guiding Philosophy
The Pennsylvania Covenant House is part of a broader movement to fight child homelessness—just one branch in a vast international network spanning 22 cities across North and Central America. But from Tegucigalpa to Toronto, there runs a common thread: the Covenant House way.

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The organization’s core philosophy is built on two pillars not often embodied in a single organization. The first is the unconditional love and support that the children continue to receive throughout their stay, which on average lasts 45 days. The other is an adamancy on self-empowerment.

When politicians discuss social welfare policy, they pit these ideas against each other—liberal compassion vs. conservative “boot-straps” pragmatism. But if the wellbeing of the homeless is truly your sole priority, as it is at Covenant House, then this duality is key to success short and long term.

“Our goal is not to make you become dependent upon Covenant House,” Organ explains. “Our goal is to pick you up, dust you off, make you feel loved and teach you how to take care of yourself.”

The kids get picked up, dusted off and loved at the Crisis Center for a couple weeks to a couple months. But how do they learn to take care of themselves?

Self-Empowering Homeless Youth
After a child gets settled in at the Crisis Center, he or she moves on to the next step in the care continuum. “We sit down with them and develop a goal plan,” says Organ. The staff helps each child lay out the steps he or she needs to take to reach the ultimate goal: self-sufficiency. This often means going back to school, as most of them have dropped out—fallen through the many cracks in the deeply flawed Philadelphia school system. And it invariably means employment. “In order for these kids to get out of homelessness, and stay out of homelessness, they have to get a job,” Organ says.

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For kids at the Crisis Center, minimum wage jobs are a good start—but that’s all they are. Even working fulltime, “they’re one paycheck away from being homeless again,” says Organ. “You can’t live on minimum wage in the city of Philadelphia.”

And at Covenant House, a child dependent on the Crisis Center or teetering on the brink of homelessness does not count as a success story. There is more work to be done.

Rights of Passage
Rights of Passage (ROP) is Covenant House’s critical transitional housing program, the stepping stone between surviving, dependently, and thriving independently. ROP allows the young adults to practice independent living at an apartment complex, located in Kensington, for up to 18 months.“That’s really where kids can get out of crisis,” Organ explains.

The young adults living in ROP housing must do everything for themselves: maintain a job, finish schooling, pay rent (75% of which they get back at the end of the program) and cook and clean. This intermediary stage on the continuum of care is absolutely vital to the kids’ long-term success, Organ explains. “We’re about teaching them how to do these things because they’re going to have to do them the rest of their life.”

And, like most young adults their age, this is when they start to figure out what they really want out of life. “When you have 18 months to get all that together,” Organ says, “you have an opportunity to make a big change in your life.” And the opportunity doesn’t go to waste: 83% of ROP participants move on to safe, independent living situations (data from 2010).

Covenant House also makes sure each individual knows how to navigate the local network of social services that many of them will need—medical care, mental health counseling, sobriety programs, etc. “The goal is to get them connected in their community,” Organ explains, “because ultimately that’s where they’re going to have to live.”

The Homeless Problem in Philadelphia: The Bigger Picture
Homelessness in Philadelphia is a bit different than most cities. The problem isn’t that there are a great number more homeless people here; Rather, we are particularly bad at sheltering them. A 2013 report on hunger and homelessness in 25 cities shows that 48% of the demand for emergency shelter in Philly is unmet, over twice the average of other cities and the second worst-performing city in the U.S.

More explicitly, this means that Philly shelters barely half of its homeless. Equally troubling is the fact that Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate of the ten largest cities in the U.S., with 39% of children living below the poverty line—all at imminent risk of falling into homelessness.

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Philadelphia’s failure to care for its homeless is largely due to a complicit, insidious silence—a pervasive ignorance of an increasingly serious social calamity. Most people don’t even think its exists. “When we first came to Philadelphia,” Organ remembers, “people talked about how there’s no need for Covenant House [because] there are no homeless kids here.” 

That was in 1999. Fifteen years later, the severity of the situation is ever-mounting—but so is the level of ignorance. Homeless children are still an invisible population in Philly, in that the general public does not see or interact with these children in daily living, and they are excluded from the media and public discourse. Organ says that government documentation and charitable support of the issue are all increasing, but it’s not nearly enough.“Whether people want to acknowledge it or not, there’s a problem with homelessness for our youth in the city of Philadelphia.”

Of course, it must be said that homelessness is inextricably linked to a tangle of other social issues that warrant their own coverage and analysis: Unemployment, unlivable wages, a failing education system, substance abuse, human trafficking and many more. These are all complex, systemic forces larger than ourselves and larger than Covenant House. It would be patently naïve to assume we will be rid of these problems—much less eradicate homelessness—any time soon, without any kind of drastic change in action.

But while society continues to fail its young and homeless, the kids at Covenant House have already drastically redirected their own course of action: They’ve made the pivotal choice to get they help they need—to commit themselves to self-transformation. “Every kid is here because they choose to be here,” Organ says, “and that’s half the battle because they’re choosing to make a change in their life.

If these brave kids are fighting half the battle against homelessness in our city, then we already owe a lot to them. Because by choosing to make the individual journey out of homelessness and into self-sufficiency, they are one at a time collectively lifting Philadelphia—all of us—out of the socioeconomic destitution that holds entire cities back. Can we meet them halfway? After all, as Organ puts it, “these kids are going to be the citizens of Philadelphia.”

By Carolyn Todd

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If you’d like to join the fight against youth homelessness, consider donating as little as 50 cents a day to Covenant House.

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  • Cristo Moreno

    This is insanely in-depth and highly informative. Thank you for digging so deep

  • http://www.TheGreatSOCIO.com Berto Muñoz

    Seriously, the amount of quantifiable information in here makes the topic really hit home. I’m overwhelmed by Covenant House’s ability to make an impact on such a difficult issue.

  • Kelly Anita

    Such an amazing organization! Not only is Covenant house providing a safe place for philly’s homeless youth. They are also helping equip these teens with skills to build a brighter future.

  • Liz Delish

    Having lived in Philly’s rougher neighborhoods, I can say with certainty that billboard is no joke. Glad Covenant House is there to do what it does, they’re exactly what the city needs more of.

  • Michael Morton

    ….so thoughtful and thorough and beautiful….