Covenant House

New York Homeless Organization Gears Up for Surge in Runaway Youth

A New York City shelter provides a second chance for homeless and the exploited youth who feel hopeless amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

NBC Universal

For over 45 years, Covenant House New York has served as the New York City’s largest home for young adults, ages 16 to 24, who have been left on the streets. Within the COVID-19 epicenter, the shelter faces some added challenges but has committed to giving these abandoned individuals new opportunities.

Covenant House New York Executive Director Sr. Nancy Downing describes the changes made behind the shelter’s front doors in a recent interview with NBC New York. As most administrative staff are working from home, the organization has transformed their offices into wellness rooms, used for quarantining youth suffering with COVID-19.

Downing shares that the shelter has treated 10 young people with the virus so far. Located on the premises is a federally qualified health center where medical staff can attend to those quarantined in the shelter.

Covenant House practices guidelines during the Coronavirus pandemic, 2020

Through the pandemic, the Covenant House New York continues their education and workforce readiness classes. Downing says many of the 250 staff members are still working on-site with the transitional living programs.

Weekly check-ins with the young residents have centered around finding ways to support the youth emotionally and physically. Downing says, “Generally, our staff meet with the youth once a week, but now they’re delivering groceries and supplies to these young people because, unfortunately, many of them have lost their jobs.”

When asked if the shelter has seen an uptick during these times, Downing responds that it hasn’t had an issue yet but is expecting an imminent surge. “We’re able to reconnect the youth with family when safe to do so...We expect in the coming months that we’ll see an increase in youth using our services as we did during the economic downturn in 2008,” adds Downing.

As of May 22, the total number of individuals within city shelters is over 56,000 – nearly 20,000 being children, according to the NYC Department of Homeless Services report. Within the fiscal year, just over 90 percent of families with children are of black or Hispanic race/ethnicity, based on DHS data dashboard.

The Covenant House New York serves around 1,300 young people per year. In recent days, Downing says the shelter houses about 300 individuals per night.

Reasons vary with every case, but there are commonalities as to why these runaways decide to flee their homes. “Often times there’s domestic violence or mental health issues in the family. For our LGBT youth, they get kicked out of the home because parents aren’t willing or able to deal with it in the moment,” said Downing.

Through all the personal trauma these young people face, let alone during a pandemic, she wants these individuals to know that they are loved for who they are. Often dealing with trafficked women, she helps teach them what a healthy relationship should look like.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Covenant House hosted their annual fundraiser, “A Night of Covenant House Stars” virtually on May 18. The program featured the stories of young people currently housed, which included a star-studded line-up, including guests Jon Bon Jovi, Stephen Colbert, Deborah Cox, Morgan Freeman and Dolly Parton.

Copyright NBC New York
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