Helping homeless youth by nurturing their potential with Covenant House

For National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, we sat down with Covenant House to explore the resources available to homeless youth and ways in which corporates, employees, and citizens can volunteer to support their success.

Here are the highlights from the conversation, paraphrased in parts for better readability: 

Nadia: Please share with us the inspiring story of how Covenant House came into existence and what is the core mission that drives your organization every day. 

Heather: Covenant House was founded by a priest back in the 60s. And over the years, they have expanded across the Americas. So there are more than 35 sites now. We are specifically Covenant House, California. We serve the entire state of California, where we provide sanctuary and supportive services for young people experiencing homelessness and human trafficking. Our driving philosophy is that no young person deserves to be homeless; every young person deserves shelter, care, and education to reach their dreams and, most importantly, to be loved. Everything we do centers around loving young people and ensuring they are set up for success. It's our community's job to ensure that happens.

Nadia: Could you give us some insight into the specific demographics and backgrounds of the young people you typically work with?

Heather: Yeah, the young people we serve are traditionally 18 to 24 years old, experiencing homelessness through no fault of their own. A large population of the youth we serve are exiting systems-based placements, such as foster care or juvenile justice placements. We serve a large portion of our community, including people of color. The places where poverty exists impact youth the same way it impacts everybody else. Across the state, we serve about 1700 young people yearly with sanctuary and supportive services.

Nadia: And what challenges do your clients commonly face?

Heather: For our clients, the best way to describe what they're facing is the truth of their world, which is kind of alone. So when you're 18, you can't pay your rent. Many people have a community of support they can turn to - parents, grandparents, family. The young people we serve need that support. Covenant House is their community and family, providing help and space to stabilize and increase their independence. Even after they leave our programs, many stay in touch, becoming part of our family for life. We routinely have alumni in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who return and give back to the community of young people who need them today.

Nadia: Can you share some of the most memorable success stories you've witnessed at Covenant House?

Monique: Success is an interesting word. It depends on how you define it, right? Because to us, success can mean many different things. A success story for us could be a youth who comes in without identification, facing barriers to employment and stable housing. Success can help them obtain all their identification and connect them to a job. Youths often get excited just about getting their ID because it's their first time having one for some, a significant step towards overcoming their challenges. 

Success can also be seen in a youth's excitement for a job interview, showing us their outfit and eagerly anticipating starting work, building a career, and working towards their future. Success can take on various forms, but for us, it often involves celebrating the small victories that impact our young people.

Nadia: Can you please share with us some of the most impactful initiatives of Covenant House and the outcomes that they have achieved?

Heather: We have a comprehensive list of programs at Covenant House. One thing we've learned in caring for young people is that the more services we offer, the more they engage with them. We strive to make it easy for young people to access any supportive service they need. At our core, we're a housing agency providing shelter, transitional housing, rapid rehousing, and moving toward affordable housing. We ensure that young people graduating from our programs can afford to live in their communities. 

On any night, we house about 290 young people across California, where they find stability. We also offer career and education services, mental and medical health care, legal aid, and assistance accessing benefits like food security and SSI. We provide every wraparound service through partnerships or hiring staff to ensure our young people have everything they need to succeed.

Nadia: How many offices do you currently have in the US? 

Heather: Covenant, the larger Covenant House Federation? I don't know that answer off the top of my head. I know we're in more than 35 locations. I'm not sure how many sites we have in California, but currently, we have seven, and by the end of next year, we'll have nine sites across California. So we're a pretty significant piece of the Covenant House family. Covenant House, Alaska, is the largest Covenant House site, and California comes in second. Our largest site in California is our Los Angeles site, with over 100 beds in our Los Angeles facility.

Nadia: As a leading organization in your field, what key strategies have you found most effective in tackling youth homelessness? On the other hand, what gaps or challenges do you currently see in addressing this issue?

Heather: The reality is there are lots of services for homelessness in all communities. However, there's a real lack of services dedicated to young people and homeless people. Homelessness looks different for a young person than it does for an adult. And the needs are different. So, we have created advocacy and movements around specific funding for the youth population to serve young people better. And we've been successful in the state of California. An example is that there's been a chap set aside and home key set-asides that allow agencies like Covenant House and our partners access specific funding that will help as part of the community. 

You know, one of the ways homelessness service works is that there's a coordinated entry system that dictates where a young person or where a homeless person can access specific services, and length of time, being homeless is one of the factors that they look at. So young people sometimes fall into different categories. So, as somebody who's been chronically homeless for a while. But we believe that if you end homelessness with a young person, if we can make it brief and one time, then chronic homelessness will eventually be solved, right? So, the most important thing the community can do is take preventive measures. So we have some new programs that we're launching or have been established in the last year around problem-solving and ensuring that a person doesn't experience homelessness, or if they do, their homelessness is very brief.

On the other hand, prevention creates accessible housing for our young people. So when our young people age out, the average age is about 24. And when they're moving out at 24, you need more time and career development to make considerable money, right? And to live in California. Today, you need to make $120,000 to live sustainably in a place of your own in any major city in California. And so that's not a reality for most 24-year-olds. 

We've tried to create low-income housing that's available specifically for young people so that they can afford to pay their rent. And so that's one of the ways we're also trying to prevent it. Prevention is really important. Another place we're focusing on is increasing the inventory of placements for young people. So, a young person, an 18-year-old, is not always safe in an adult shelter with 300 beds. It's primarily for people who have experienced chronic homelessness over the years; a young person feels safer and is more apt to feel confident and work on their independence if they're in a space that feels safe to them. And so, only about 3% of the beds across California are designated for young people. And we're trying to make sure that there's more than that. There are more than 12,000 young people across California who are experiencing homelessness every day. And there needs to be more beds for those 12,000 young people. We think those places could make a difference for people experiencing homelessness. The population overall, right? If we're ending it early, preventing it, and having the resources that young people need to access, we will be better off in the long run as a community.

Nadia: Over the years of working closely with homeless youth, what valuable lessons have you learned about the challenges they face and the resilience they show?

Monique: There are so many different layers to the challenges faced by the young people we work with. But it's returning to what Heather said: it's like a lack of community, right? Community changes and shapes and molds people; when you have community, you have somebody to help and guide you. And so I feel like many of our youth have experienced different traumas and things of that nature and just had to go through so many things alone. Something that we do well is provide that community for them. And so when the youth comes in, it can also be overwhelming. Right. So that's another part of the challenge. When you've never had community, you walk into this place, and there's so much community everywhere that some people need to learn how to respond to it because it's very unfamiliar. And so, just really having to like work with the youth and meet them where they're at, and allow them to lead the way as far as how much they want to engage in the beginning because we're not trying to like to be, you know, all on them and like, you know, not give them room to breathe. 

So that is a big challenge. And the youth we work with, though they are so they're just like, they're so amazing, and resilient. And, you know, once they feel comfortable and can tap into that community, they open up. They start to share about all the different things that they love and want to do, and getting to be a part of that and seeing them, you know, open up is also so beautiful, and it speaks a lot about their resiliency. And it's just a great thing to witness and to be a part of.

Heather: Young people are talented, smart, and capable of making their own decisions. One of the good lessons we've learned over all the years of doing this is allowing them to do that in their own time, giving them the tools they need to do that, and coming alongside them in the community. But knowing that, as an individual, they know what's best for them, and so we're there to support and lift, we're not there to dictate what that looks like.

Nadia: What are some of the top skills that a young person needs to become more successful or to get the tools they need to get out of the system? 

Heather: Many of our young people have yet to experience somebody who teaches them basic life skills. So, how do you make a budget? How do you pay rent? How do you start a utility in a new apartment? Most adults think that all of those are simple life skills. If nobody has ever taken the time to teach you those things, you're at a real disadvantage. And so, to be successful, they need access to education and employment support, they need access to life skills, and they need access to the medical and mental health care that they need. You cannot exit homelessness if you don't have a safe and stable place to sleep. 

So one of the questions we get a lot from the community is, well, why don't they just get a job? Have you ever had an interview when you've been on the street for a week and haven't had a shower or eaten in three days? Like, that's not a realistic expectation, and so even just that space, to breathe, and catch your breath, and have a meal, and have a good night's sleep, and go to the clothing closet and get a nice outfit and take a shower and be prepared, all of that is setting up a young person for success. So meeting those basic needs is the most important part.

Monique: I agree with that 100%. Once the basic needs are met, the young person will have room to breathe and think about other things. They are no longer in survival mode, worried about where they will stay or where their food will come from; those needs are already taken care of. It sets them up and allows them the freedom to figure out the next steps or even free up space in their mind. Because not knowing where you're going to be from night to night is extremely stressful and takes a toll on you. So, being able to provide for basic needs makes a huge difference.

Nadia: The impact of Covenant House is undeniable. Could you share some stories or anecdotes about the reception and support you have received from the public? Or other stakeholders for your work in this crucial space?

Monique: So, from the public and other stakeholders, we receive much support, which is beautiful. Because, I mean, of course, that's what we want. But we also want to have more people in the community be a part of what we're doing, and for the youth to be able to work with them and see them. And so it's, I think, that we're very, very fortunate that way. Collaboration is also key to what we're doing and what we're about. And yeah, I think what's special also, with a lot of the public and corporate stakeholders, is they also have a sense of urgency. So, many of them want to find different ways to be involved, but with a sense of urgency. And so I think that's also really special and important because they're able to see how important this is and how important it is to be a part of it, and how much they're wanting and willing to be a part of what we're doing.

Nadia: Do you have any specific examples of your collaboration with a corporate partner or stakeholder and how this collaboration contributes to your mission?

Monique: We have some great corporate sponsors that we work with that have volunteered to teach financial literacy to our youth, for example. That's something that is a skill that a lot of our youth don't necessarily have because no one has ever taught them that. And so we've been able to have people volunteer and lead courses on that with our youth and just teach them basic things about having a savings account and how that works, as well as how you save money and budget. So that's one way we have also had people volunteer to redo some of the wings of the rooms where the young people are staying. They recognize that it's important for someone to come in and have a nice space that they feel comfortable staying in, and they have wanted to come in and redo those spaces. So we've also had people come in and do that as well, which has been special because, you know, it makes the youth feel like they are loved and that they're seen and that it's important that they're seen as important than the space that they're in is important as well.

Heather: I think one of my favorite examples of a corporate partnership that was meaningful to Covenant House, California, is Cisco, one of our largest partners. And we were opening in a new community of Santa Clara, and Cisco, solely by themselves, funded that venture for the first two years. So that gave us time to get on our feet, build some more community of support, get some new partners in there, and that would not have been possible. So now, there are 30 young people every night who are not on the street because a corporate partner has stepped in to help ensure that that happened.

Nadia: I wonder if individuals like me can also volunteer to teach or mentor young people at one of your sites. 

Heather: We love volunteers, and it's kind of our mantra. We want you to do whatever it is you like to do and whatever it is you enjoy doing; we just want you to do it with the young people that we're serving. So the more that we build communities of support for our young people, the more that they feel that dignity and love, and the more equipped they're going to be. We have volunteer opportunities for pretty much anything you can think of, from cooking to budgeting to cleanup. We always need people to help us build outreach kits. There are a hundred different ways that people can come and be part of our community at Covenant House.

Nadia: It's heartening to hear how the community and corporate partners have right around your cause. And I believe that ending homelessness most certainly requires commitment from many partners. These stories of support and collaboration are a powerful reminder of collective effort's impact in addressing these societal challenges. So if you had the opportunity to pass on a vital message, or a piece of advice to another nonprofit organization working in the realm of youth homelessness, what would you do?

Heather: For me, I think that message would be to remember to meet youth where they are. So I think many youth programs, with a long history, have a very rigid idea about what a successful young person looks like. One of the really strong things about Covenant House is we don't decide what success looks like; we let a young person decide what their success looks like. And we just come alongside them. And we see more success stories, I think, than other agencies, because that's how we lift and love our young people.

Monique: And I also want to add that going back to collaboration is important. Collaboration is key. So, many different nonprofits work with youth who are overcoming homelessness. And working together is also really important. Because there are so many times when we're working where we've had touch points with the same individual, and also because different agencies offer different resources, it's crucial that we work together to set these young people up for success. And so collaborating helps to amplify the impact that we're making.

Nadia: Let's discuss the vital role of community engagement in addressing youth homelessness. How important is employee and community involvement? Can you share ideas of impactful community initiatives that corporations and communities can work on?

Heather: Yeah, so the truth is, an agency like Covenant House, California cannot do this by itself. I mean, it takes a whole community of support. So we need support for everything from volunteers, right? It takes a village, it takes a lot of people to love and embrace the 1000 young people that we serve a year, and we don't have enough money to pay for staff to do that. So, one of the things that we can benefit from is volunteerism. We have lots of ways in which corporate partners can be involved. 

Aside from volunteerism, though, we need lots of gifts. It's a lot to house that many people, so we need things like towels and hygiene products on a pretty regular basis. Our largest event every year is a sleepout. So we always encourage corporations to build sleepout teams with us. Our sleepout is where we sleep out in solidarity with our young people. So, there are lots of ways for corporations to get involved.

Monique: I'm just piggybacking off what Heather said. We are always looking to have people become involved. And so there's endless opportunities. And I think one of the great things is that some of our youth respond well to when people can come on and teach something they're passionate about because the youth see that passion. And so it brings them in, and they get excited about it. So that's one of the things that is special, and that we love to see. But yeah, we have ongoing needs, such as gifts and donations, because of all the different young people we are serving. And so hygiene products are a huge thing that we're always in need of, you know. There are so many different opportunities and ways for people to be involved, and we need it. We love to help people be part of the mission.

Nadia: From the example you have shared, it's clear that everyone has a role to play, and even small actions can collectively make a significant impact in the lives of these young people. So in the next section, I'd like to ask you both for some expert insight that our listeners, corporate citizens, and nonprofits can take away from this conversation. So first, imagine you're giving one developer tip to amplify impact in your area of expertise. What's that golden nugget of advice you'd like to share with our audience?

Heather: I think for the community, you know, there are a lot of agencies, Covenant House and others, that we partner with that are making a huge impact. The community can be most impactful by supporting those agencies doing large projects of good, right? So, supporting an agency like Covenant House is always more impactful. The other thing is just lifting the needs around advocacy. So there are lots of ways that you can get involved in your community around ensuring that young people are taken care of through the Youth Homelessness Act in California and in other spaces. So, helping us amplify the message and meet the need is always helpful.

Monique: Everybody has a voice. And so the more people that want to support this cause and other agencies that are working on, you know, against homelessness, the better the voices are that we have more people out advocating and just sharing and making people aware. I think that it's always so interesting to have conversations with people about homelessness because a lot of people seem not to be aware of it and so within itself, being able to share information about it and educate the community makes a huge difference because it makes more people aware and the more people you know, are spreading the word. And so I think that is something that's really, really valuable and very helpful in supporting the work.

About the organization
Covenant House helps youth who are trafficked or at risk through early intervention, housing, and mental health programs.
International Literacy Day activities

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