A New York-based international non-profit that operates youth shelters in 27 cities in six countries is going to open in Chicago later this year.
Covenant House International President Kevin Ryan told Windy City Times they selected Chicago after a lengthy search, "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."
Chicago certainly has a need for more shelter beds serving youth experiencing homelessness. There are fewer than 400 beds of any kind ( shelter, transitional living, scattered site ) for what is estimated to be several thousand young people unstably housed in the city. The Chicago Public Schools notes some 22,000 of its youth are in this situation, many of them unaccompanied teenagers.
But even though there is a great need, there are also limited supports to maintain even the services now in place. The Illinois budget crisis has meant that most agencies serving youth who are homeless, as well as other social service agencies, are cutting budgets and staff. Some have even closed their doors. In Chicago, there is concern that another agency opening up now will further dilute government and other funding resources.
Ryan said he is aware of the funding crisis in Illinois. He said the agency already has 7,000 donors in Illinois who give to the international Covenant House movement. Ryan said they have committed not to ask for any local or federal government funding for the Covenant House location in Chicago for the first four years of its operation.
"We know city resources are scarce, the state is in paralysis, so we're committed to work really hard to grow philanthropy among our donor base over the next four years," Ryan said. "So our pitch is to deepen their investment in our work. We want to grow the pie, not shrink the pie."
The Covenant House structure is complex. Ryan heads Covenant House International. The money the international agency raises is from private philanthropy. He said they raise half the money for each of the Covenant House sites. "We are fully responsible for funding the first four years of a launch," Ryan said.
Once Covenant House locations are on their own, some of them do in fact get large federal grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. In Alaska, 43 percent of their funding is from the government, according to Charity Navigator. In New York, 45 percent comes from the government, while in California it is 26 percent. Some states appear to get no government funds. The government money is not just for housing; it can include employment, outreach, case management and other services. The remaining funding appears to be from a mix of private donors, foundation grants, corporations and special events.
The main large-scale fundraiser Covenant House does is a "sleep out" in each city, including a major one each year in New York City. Since I chaired a Sleep Out in Chicago last year that raised $44,000 for 19 youth homeless projects, I asked Ryan if they would work together to show their partnership in Chicago. He said they would explore this, but that's not how they have worked in other cities.
Ryan said they have $1 million in committed funds for their Chicago location, part of a $14-million estimated cost here. While they initially will not rely on government funding, they are seeking government help in finding a location. They said they have been encouraged to find a spot on the North or Northwest Side of the city, and they hope to announce a location very soon. They do not plan to build from scratch, but to take over an existing structure. "We hope to be up and operational by fall," Ryan said.
The size of the facility could serve anywhere from 20-60 homeless, trafficked and runaway youth, Ryan added, and there will be an executive director from Chicago running the facility. Each of the Covenant House entities has autonomy, but they are still connected to the main international body.
Ryan also said they plan to partner with local non-profits for some of the services at Covenant House. "We're negotiating with other NGOs [non-governmental organizations] for medical care, education, food support, behavioral counseling, etc. We are a 24-hour, 7-day, no-barrier open intake for homeless youth shelter, and we want to collaborate with existing nonprofits, to partner with others, and serve our kids."
Covenant House not only runs shelters, but they also operate transitional living facilities where youth can live for a specified period of time. Their Chicago plan includes opening a transitional or transpermanent housing facility within 18 months.
Ryan's own life has included a lengthy past with Covenant House, starting in 1992 when he worked at the Skadden Arps law firm and did a two-year fellowship with the agency, launching its legal-aid clinic. He stayed 10 years, helping to write legislation focused on youth experiencing homelessness. He then went to work in New York and New Jersey on issues including homelessness and immigration. He served as New Jersey's first Child Advocate, first commissioner of Children and Families, and then with the United Nations as the first chief of staff to the secretary general's first special envoy on malaria. He worked for a time under New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey.
In 2009, he returned to Covenant House as its international presidenthe was its first leader not to come from a Roman Catholic religious order.
Ryan is heterosexual, but he does have a high-profile gay brother, Owen Ryan, who is executive director of the International AIDS Society based in Geneva, Switzerland.
Why did Ryan come back to Covenant House? "I loved the young people I have been working with, and saw an enormous opportunity to grow Covenant House, to raise the work, including human trafficking," he said. "When I went to public service, I was frustrated seeing kids, teens, young people, experiencing the same problems, poverty, abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and I thought the government and child-welfare system would be a way to help people and strengthen families. It was a terrific opportunity to work on repairing the New Jersey child-welfare system, but I learned important work both inside and outside government. I felt I wanted to be part of this movement, which is bigger than the state of New Jersey and ending trafficking."
The issue of sex trafficking is not easily defined or solved. Some youth see their sex work as under their own control, especially when they don't work for a pimp. "Some young people living with us may do this, and they don't get kicked out if doing sex work," Ryan said. "We do want kids to have choices, and we work really hard to give them choices. From an advocate's position, the federal definition is really clear. We work with advocates to create resources and opportunities, safe centers to go to."
Ryan said they are part of a study of 800 youth who are homeless, from Anchorage to Florida, being studied on sex trafficking. Those results will be out this fall. In a previous study, 25 percent of young homeless people were exploited or trafficked. "There were young people who said they only did this because they had no place to sleep, even if they did not have a pimp," Ryan said. "For us, it is all about giving kids choice. There are young people, very few, who say this is what they want to do, but with poverty and no place to sleep, it's really tough to say that is a true choice."
Including LGBTQ youth
While Covenant House is not an LGBTQ organization, any institution serving homeless young adults is aware that anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of their clients are LGBTQ. Ryan said "there are more LGBTQ young people sleeping under a Covenant House roof than any other entity, because we are in six countries."
But Covenant House has a checkered past when it comes to serving those youth. As a result, the LGBTQ, Cyndi Lauper-founded True Colors Fund is advising them on how to overcome that past.
Reverend Bruce Ritter, a Franciscan priest, started working with New York's poor in the late 1960s, and with others founded Covenant House in 1972. But the religious-based organization was not known as a safe place for LGBTQ youth, and it went beyond just lack of acceptance. In 1990, Ritter was forced out after allegations of sexual abuse from some of the youth the agency served. Ritter was also accused of financial misconduct, but the district attorney stopped pursuing the case after Ritter stepped down. An international Covenant House investigation appeared to side with the agency, but did say their was extensive "cumulative" evidence against Ritter.
Whether sexual abuse took place or not, the agency itself was not seen as a safe haven for LGBTQs.
Ryan said that the True Colors partnership "is helping us to achieve great advantage in safe spaces and evidence-informed practices, to get kids to move forward in their lives."
Jama Shelton, the True Colors Fund deputy executive director, is the point for the Covenant House International partnership.
The reason for the partnership is clear. "There have been accounts, historical accounts, of young people reporting some extreme mistreatment," Shelton said. "This is from LGBT young people, from staff and other young people in the space. They earned a reputation of not being safe. … I think part of it was, yes, practices that were not safe and not affirming, and environments that were not safe, and a recognition of that, and wanting to move past that and change that. And also try to repair that history and change the reputation.
"When we entered into this partnership, there were some people that were upset. I understand that because I understand the history of what had happened, and I also feel as a social worker, and from a solutions-focused perspective, my response was I hear you and validate that, but if there are people who want to do right by our young people, should I not try to facilitate that? I will say Kevin and everyone have come to the table and wanting to learn. That's excellent. … Different sites have different degrees of understanding of LGBT and competency and learning. There are many hopes that through this process there will be some pretty clear understanding of policies and procedures to make LGBT young people safe."
Shelton explained the work she is doing on this partnership.
"We conduct our True Inclusion assessment process at all sites in the U.S. and Canada," Shelton said. "It is a three-step process, to gauge the level of LGBT affirming and inclusive care. The first step is objective, it asks questions like does [each Covenant House location] have this policy in place, or gender-neutral bathrooms, or if it houses trans youth based on gender identity. The second step is for all staff, not just direct care, but every staff member, from security to overnight, legal team, etc. It gauges staff members' knowledge about LGBT-related topics and working with and comfort level working with LGBT youth, and asks them the type of training or professional development they need to increase knowledge and comfort levels. And if they think it is safe for LGBT youth in their care. The third step is a voluntary youth survey for all youth, not just LGBT, and asks them questions: is it safe for LGBT, trans included, and in the past seven days if they have witnessed any of following, things like physical harassment, verbal harassment, by staff, or other young people, based on race, gender expression or sexual orientation."
Shelton said this third phase can assist administrators in making changes based on the work done from the first two assessment phases. True Colors makes recommendations during the process and at the end of it. They are in the midst of this for all of the U.S. and Canadian sites, 17 in all, having started about a year ago. The process should end by May, Shelton said.
Do the religious roots of Covenant House hamper its ability to serve some youth? Shelton said she sees the religious influence mainly through the agency's mission and core values. She also said many young people have had bad experiences with religion, so it could be seen as a barrier to their receiving inclusive and affirming services.
"For some who experience religious persecution or abuse, or those who have parents who used religion as a thing against them, they may never walk in the door of a religious-based place," Shelton said. "This is an issue for any religious-based place."
Ryan said those religious roots provide the agency with a mission of social justice and helping the poor. "This movement is about celebrating young people for exactly who they are," he said. "Gay, lesbian, transgender, straight, for who they are. We don't use the narrative of tolerance. It is about connecting kids to their authentic selves."
Ryan said he believed Covenant House has moved far beyond its past. They have support from LGBTQ individuals and organizations. They have openly gay people on their international board of directors. "I don't feel I have to prove anything to the city," Ryan said. "I have to earn that with the homeless young people of Chicago. Will young people who are desperate, and trying to make a decision, whether it is better on the street or if they are better off inside, will they come inside. I hope they come inside, that they will view it as a safe place to turn their life around."
There is a mixture of excitement and wariness filtering through the youth homeless-service community in Chicago. There is a need for more beds and related services. But there is also a fear that a larger international agency coming in may take away from funding sources already at risk, whether from the state government, private foundations, corporations or individuals. The impact of Covenant House on the youth service communityand for youthis an unknown.
The only thing for sure is that in 2016: Chicago will become the 28th city with a Covenant House location.