NEW ORLEANS- 'Never give up.'
Audrica shouted those words enthusiastically in a crowded room at Covenant House on N. Rampart Street. (Covenant House asked me to refrain from using the last names of homeless youth to protect their privacy.)
The 20-year-old has been homeless for over a year. And the roots of her struggle run deep.
'I don't come from family,' she said. 'Covenant House is home.'
Others in the crowd echoed Audrica's story.
Many come from broken families. But they focus instead on the future. And their spirit of optimism is inspiring.
The Sleep Out
I'll admit, when Covenant House executive director Jim Kelly first asked me to spend a night sleeping on the street, I was hesitant.
But the more I thought about it, the more excited I grew. I had covered the incredible difference Covenant House makes for homeless youth before. And this would be an invaluable chance to get a glimpse of what it's like to sleep on the streets, and raise funds to support homeless youth in the process.
And so, on November 14, I joined 92 others in New Orleans, and hundreds nationwide, who slept on the pavement in solidarity with homeless youth.
I arrived at Covenant House just after sunset.
Volunteers were already beginning to lay down cardboard boxes outside. The sleeping bags would be next.
Then the rest of the 'sleepers' began to arrive. They included council members, state legislators, judges, business leaders, WWL-TV general manager Tod Smith and Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
We selected our spots on the pavement, and prepared for an eye-opening night.
Sleeping on the Street
I thought the hardest part of sleeping on the pavement would be the elements. I wondered how cold it would be or if it would rain.
It did rain. Thankfully, there were a few awnings under which we could drag our sleeping bags. Others used cardboard boxes for cover. The temperature was bearable, in the 50s, but did require a few layers to stay warm.
But I realized that regardless of the weather, there is one factor that never changes. Sleeping on the pavement is painful. After I finally dozed off, the pain in my back woke me up. I tried to sleep on my side, but the unforgiving pavement hurt my hip. I tossed and turned, trying to get comfortable. I couldn't.
I am fortunate to have a comfortable bed to go home to, and a clean bathroom where I can brush my teeth and take a warm shower. I know that when I am hungry, I can get a meal. Moreover, I'm incredibly fortunate to have a supportive family who loves me. Hundreds of young people in New Orleans don't have those basic needs.
And how do you lift yourself out of homelessness when you can't shower for a job interview, or when you've spent a sleepless night beneath a bridge and exhaustion sets in?
The Covenant House Kids
Last year, Covenant House helped 750 young people, ages 16 to 22. Kelly expects that number will be closer to 900 this year.
In the past two years, the average number of kids sleeping at Covenant House nightly has grown from 44 to 138.
And on Thursday night, we had the privilege of getting to know some of them.
Allen was placed in an orphanage in the Ukraine soon after he was born. He was adopted by abusive parents, eventually ending up homeless.
Now, he's getting a second chance through Covenant House.
'Be thankful for what you do have. Don't worry about the things you don't have,' he said. 'It's not over. Even though you've been hurt so many times, it's not over.'
Kelly likes to say, 'All these kids are good kids. You may have to peel back the onion a little bit, but underneath, all of them are good kids.'
And from what I've seen, he's right.
The young adults we met Thursday night are resilient. They are full of hope for the future. They laughed and joked with us. They had spirit.
You would never know that many of them were born into homes filled with drugs, violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and/or neglect. They ended up on the streets either because they didn't have a choice, or because they would rather sleep outside than endure the unspeakable conditions at home.
Covenant House gives kids a choice.
Many homeless youth are hesitant at first to walk through the facility's iron gates on N. Rampart Street and seek help.
'I thought it was kid's jail,' said Star, a resident originally from Atlanta.
But when Star walked through the door, the woman who greeted her immediately felt like a mother to her. Star's mother was murdered when she was young.
Now age 21, Star said Covenant House has taught her what it is like to be loved. It has made her into the woman she is today.
Addressing the Issue
Sleeping outside for one night has made me more compassionate about the people we see sleeping under bridges or begging on the interstate.
Listening to the Covenant House kids has given me a deeper understanding of the reasons they ended up on the street in the first place.
And unless we as a society can figure out how to address those underlying problems, we will continue to see at-risk youth turn to the streets.
Of the youth who come to Covenant House, a high percentage lost their mothers between the ages of six and 12. Some were murdered, others went to prison. In many cases, drug addiction played a role.
40 percent of the young people at Covenant House are either on medication for mental health issues, or should be, according to Sister Kathleen, a licensed counselor. Getting that medication can be difficult because appointments are hard to come by.
The vast majority of the young people Covenant House sees suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Some have chronic mental health problems. A small percentage of the residents are bipolar or schizophrenic and can't function in society without proper treatment.
Kelly pointed out studies that show the brain rewires itself after a certain level of trauma.
'We have a real opportunity with this population,' he said.
It's an opportunity to turn lives around, to help stop the cycle of homelessness one child at a time.
Anyone between the ages of 16 and 22 can walk in and spend a night at Covenant House. Residents can also bring in their children.
But for the long-term, life-changing work, residents must demonstrate discipline and commitment.
Covenant House offers counseling, treatment, job preparedness and placement, and an education. It teaches youth how to save money and how to run their own households. It works with landlords to help young people find housing when they are ready.
Those who stay long term must adhere to a schedule and come up with a plan to get a job and further their education, and eventually, find an apartment.
Kelly said he and his staff members tailor the program to fit individual needs. If a child leaves, Covenant House will give them another chance if they come back.
Sherie first arrived at Covenant House 20 years ago. She had run away from a life of foster care and group homes and was living with other homeless youth in an abandoned parking garage on Rampart Street.
She heard about Covenant House from a man who brought in sack lunches.
A week later, she entered the facility, and her life has never been the same.
Now, she has gone from being a resident of Covenant House to being an employee. She helps others who are in situations similar to hers. She is about to graduate with a psychology degree. But most importantly, she says, Covenant House taught her what it was to be loved. And she credits the staff with giving her the tools to become the mother she is today.
We raised over $222,000 for Covenant House kids through this year's sleep out- nearly double last years' number. But more importantly, we showed these young people that we believe in them. And we are not giving up.
If you would like to donate to the Covenant House, go to http://covhou.convio.net/site/TR/SleepOut/SleepOutExecutiveEdition?px=1726519&pg=personal&fr_id=1173.