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Covenant House Interim E.D. has come home
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2016-09-05

This article shared 557 times since Mon Sep 5, 2016
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In the 1927 William Faulkner novel Mosquitoes, Dorothy Jameson—an artist and guest on board the yacht Nausikaa—tells the young man she is trying to seduce "I think the serious things really are the things that make for happiness—people and things that are compatible, love. So many people are content just to sit around and talk about them instead of getting out and attaining them. As if life were a joke of some kind."

Those who work and volunteer with the international New York-based non-profit Covenant House have never been content to just sit around.

Not when, according to the organization, every year over "two million kids in America will face a period of homelessness." Not when 57 percent of them "spend at least one day every month without food." Not when, in the United States, "as many as 20,000 kids are forced into prostitution by human trafficking networks each year."

For 44 years, Covenant House has aimed to provide homeless youth with some measure of the "things that make for happiness"—shelter, food, healthcare, job training and a transitional housing Right of Passage from fear, rejection and desperation into independence, dignity and hope. They have facilities in 27 cities across the Americas.

In April 2016, Covenant House International President Kevin Ryan announced that they would be expanding to Chicago—their first new site in over 16 years. It was a decision that Ryan told Windy City Times was "largely influenced by the willingness of the local provider community to partner with us. It was dramatically more substantial than in any city we looked at."

During the 2014/2015 school year Chicago Public Schools ( CPS ) estimated its homeless student population at 20,205. In addition, thousands more in the 18-25 age range are homeless. Chicago has less than 400 beds available for youth. In addition, the Illinois budget crises has stretched many social-service providers very thin, including those providing services and housing to youth experiencing homelessness.

Licensed clinical social worker Teresa Cortas has been scaling similar seemingly insurmountable mountains throughout her entire career.

When Covenant House began investigating new cities in which to expand, Cortas was heavily lobbying for Chicago where she was in the midst 18-year role at the Salvation Army. She was most recently director of the organization's Evangeline Booth Lodge in Uptown.

On Aug. 7, Covenant House announced that Chicago Lighthouse former chief advancement officer Warren K. Chapman had been selected to become its Illinois operation's first executive director.

However, Chapman soon decided not to accept the position.

Cortas stepped in as interim executive director.

Cortas said that, while Covenant House Chicago is not open yet, it has found a temporary location at the YMCA's Lawson House on the Near North Side of the city.

"It is a starting point,"she noted."Because we really want to make sure we are serving the right community. Chicago has a way of doing things in pockets. So we need to find out which the best neighborhood is for us or if we need to have multiple, small locations."

In coming back to Covenant House, Cortas has come full circle and returned to the organization where she began a life journey fighting for homeless youth and against the glaring racial and economic injustices that permeate U.S. society.

Born in the Northern Indiana city of Elkhart to a large "very Catholic family," even her early education was one that opened her eyes to how poverty and racial inequity worked together.

"When I was growing up, Elkhart was the heart of the R.V. and musical instrument industries," she told Windy City Times. "But it was very much a small town. The state of Indiana did not desegregate their schools until 1981—20 years later than the rest of the county. So I was part of that. I was watching the adults who were trying to protest and block that change; adults who I never would have thought were racist say things that weren't consistent with the neighbors I knew."

"Then I saw how they divided up the African American neighborhoods pretty randomly and sent the kids to different white schools as opposed to communities," Cortas added, "tt didn't seem fair. School was really defined by economics. My school was considered African American and was struggling."

When Cortas and other white children began to attend, she remembered that suddenly, "All of that changed and resources became available."

"There are certain things that privileged whites have expectations of and will not tolerate less than," she asserted. "But, when you are part of a culture that has been pushed out and pushed down you think 'I'm lucky to get what I have and I don't want to lose that'."

Her father worked in the R.V. industry. Both he and her then stay-at-home mother were immersed in their city's community. After Cortas and each of her three siblings left for college, her mother began working for the parish.

When Cortas left to attend Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., she was already instilled with the spiritual and ethical values of service to others. The powerful memories of her middle and high school years and the questions they raised were as central to the life she would go on to choose.

But her college years were as much about discovering herself as they were philosophy and the American literature toward which she gravitated—Faulkner and Harlem Renaissance in particular—as they were about questioning many aspects of the Catholic Church, such as patriarchy.

"I was sorting out what my attachment was to the faith," she said. "As opposed to 'is there a faith separate from the church and, if so, what does that look like?' I lived a lot in my head. It wasn't until my early 20s that I really began to realize who I was. Prior to that, even though I was approached by many women, it never really occurred to me."

Cortas admitted that Catholic anti-gay doctrines essentially "shut down" the exploration of her own sexuality during her teenage years even though they were rarely discussed in the community until the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

"Then it was conversations of 'God punishing drug addicts and homosexual men'," Cortas recalled. "At the time, I was confused because you could have said the same thing about God giving a person cancer to punish who they were. I was also intrigued to find out more about the epidemic."

Cortas graduated in 1989 with a degree in English literature.

"I didn't know what I was going to do with it," she said. "My parents had always been supporters of Covenant House and I remember [Covenant House founder] Father Bruce [Ritter] coming to speak at university. So I started working in their volunteer program."

After training for a month in New York, Cortas was sent to Anchorage, Alaska to work with the city's homeless youth.

"It was absolutely extraordinary," she said. "Beautiful but very isolated. A lot of the kids were displaced from other parts of Alaska and they would make their way to Anchorage and have nothing."

A significant number of them were Native American.

Cortas added that they would try to survive Alaska's bitterly cold winters "by doubling-up until they got kicked out or sometimes they would find a squat in the mall."

"We would connect them back with their families and try to resolve whatever issues there were or assist the youth in getting permanent housing depending on their age," she said. "Part of the problem was that they would be listed as 'missing'. Covenant House had come in at the request of the Archbishop at the time to address the problem of missing children and the human trafficking that was happening. When they opened up, there were almost 500 missing kids from around the state. After five years, the number was down to three."

In her song "Poor Man Blues," one of the most iconic singers of the Harlem Renaissance Bessie Smith wrote "While you livin' in your mansion, you don't know what hard time means. Po' man's wife is starvin', your wife is livin' like a queen."

Los Angeles is truly unique in its illustration of Smith's sentiments. It is there that the differences between arrogant, self-absorbed opulence and the wretched, desperate poverty that Mahatma Gandhi once famously called the "worst form of violence," are possibly among the most glaring in the U.S.

On a towering range overlooking L.A. sits Palos Verdes Estates and Rolling Hills. The population is predominantly white and their medium household incomes top nearly $168,000 and $185,000 respectively. The 845 K-12 students of the Chadwick School ( where actress Joan Crawford sent her daughter ) belong to families who live in a bubble of material affluence.

Only 31 miles away are the nearly 18,000 people who live in over four square miles of tents, in boxes or out of backpacks. The population of L.A.'s Skid Row is nearly 45 percent Black. Their trade is survival—to get through the next 24 hours. Some describe the community they have built as "vibrant" although it is one that is subject to brutal attacks and abuses from law enforcement as the city itself is engaged in an attempt to gentrify a neighborhood that was deliberately designed to be invisible to the rest of the world but instead became synonymous with the indifference which gave rise to it.

It was into this environment that Cortas was sent after a year in Alaska.

"I was completely overwhelmed," she said. "I mean where do you even start? It really challenged my own thinking. When I arrived, I was around the same age as some of the youth I was serving. I mean 'there but for the grace of God'. I could have been in their situation had I had different circumstances. Many were suffering with their own sexual identities. Many were involved in [sex work], addicted to drugs or they were a part of the massive porn industry there. I tried to help them visualize something beyond what they knew."

"There is a belief that the homeless are responsible for being homeless," she added. "That all you have to do is pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It over simplifies the situation. What I found was that so many of them fell victim to so many things because they were victimized at home and that started when they were very young. They were running way from something as much as they were running towards something. It was a process to help them come to terms with their own self-determination."

A significant part of the role Cortas played at the L.A. Covenant House was as ombudsman. It forced her to have to emotionally separate herself from what she was seeing.

"When kids had to leave the program for one reason or another, my role was to review that discharge and determine if they could come back in," she recalled. "If my head went too far [into emotion] I couldn't make a decision that was best for the program. If a kid put his fist through the wall, I couldn't turn around and let him back in the program but, at the same time, where could he go? What was going to happen to him in that process? We always made sure they had somewhere to go if they could not remain with us, but that was not easy to do."

However, for Cortas, there was a deeper reason for keeping her emotional distance. "The kids need to take ownership of all of their accomplishments," she said. "By my personalizing them, they become my accomplishments and they are not. I am just one of many people they are going to come across in their life who are going to hopefully point them in a direction best suited for them. I just want to make sure they have the best options in front of them.'

After completing her service in L.A., Cortas attended the University of Chicago to get her Masters in Social Work.

Covenant House then asked her to return to Southern California to direct their residential program. She had been gone only two years, but the population of homeless youth had both drastically increased in number and changed in demographics.

"We opened a new facility that attracted more youth," she said. "We were and still are very open to transgender kids and we saw a huge increase in the numbers of them participating in the program."

Meanwhile, Cortas began dating.

"I didn't feel any pressure from the organization to be a certain way," she said. "We always had a very diverse staff reflective of the population we were serving. I certainly knew many staff members who were out. It was never an issue and, if anything, it made it much easier for the youth to feel more comfortable in the program."

Nevertheless, Cortas censored many of her letters back to her family in Elkhart.

"I spared them a lot of the details of what I saw," she said. "It was just disgusting how kids were victimized and how so many of them are rounded up from other parts of the country and dropped into Los Angeles."

Eventually, Cortas came out to her parents.

"Anytime you come out to someone, it's about them and not about you," she said. "My mom's concern was that I would get AIDS. My dad was worried that I was leaving the church and so I'd have eternal damnation as a result. I felt as though I was leaving the church. I couldn't participate in any of the sacraments. Today, I'm not a practicing Catholic because the church has asked me not to be. I still struggle with it."

After more than three years in Los Angeles, Cortas wanted to be closer to her ailing mother. She returned to Chicago and accepted a position at the Ascension Respite Care Center working with HIV-positive women and their children.

"It was 1996 and HIV was still very much a death sentence to many," she said. "Although, I am relieved to hear that some of the babies we were working with have grown up. A lot of the moms we worked with didn't know they were infected until they had the baby."

After two years, Cortas began working for the Salvation Army.

"It was not my original plan," she admitted. "But I wanted to continue to work with homeless populations. So I started at their Sunnyside and Broadway building in Uptown [since developed into a housing and retail center] and then they needed someone to direct their homeless center for families on Lawrence Avenue and Marine Drive. We grew the program from 120 beds to 240 beds and it is still thriving."

However, even before she began work with the Salvation Army, Cortas was trying to convince Covenant House to open in Chicago.

"I was taking to the [then Covenant House] President Sister Mary Rose [McGeady] about opening in Chicago because I saw the need," she said. "She was an amazing woman. Hilarious but a real task master. She kept saying there were difficulties with coming to Chicago and that they didn't have the resources to do a start-up. Kevin was a friend of mine in college. When Sister Mary retired and he became president, I reached out to him and said 'you need to be in Chicago'. When Covenant House decided Chicago met all their criteria, I was elated."

Her life and career spent making a difference may have come home to the organization which helped shape it, but for Cortas, this is not a time for reflection. The work is just beginning and the challenges which lie ahead are monumental.

"Is it going to be an easy process? Not at all," she said. "I think Chicago has extraordinary youth agencies. My experience with them has been phenomenal. The problem is there is not enough. There is not enough space. The number of homeless kids in CPS is astonishing and unacceptable and we have to do something about that. There is good advocacy, grassroots organizing and collaboration in Chicago. The issue is resources—space and money."

Yet perhaps there are lessons to be taken not only from the life Cortas has already invested in homeless youth and families, but in many of the kids it has touched. They are lessons which Faulkner captured when he wrote "You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore."

"It takes a lot of courage for us to be something other than our families [are]," Cortas said. "I don't think enough LGBT [people] realize that. But when you do, you can really begin to fight."

For more information about Covenant House Chicago, see www.covenanthouse.org/tags/chicago .


This article shared 557 times since Mon Sep 5, 2016
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