A Shelter from the Streets
After 25 years, Covenant House, a New York-based ministry for runaways, continues chipping away at the monolithic international problem of street children, but times have changed.
Young people still go there to the original shelter, but today “there are more throw-aways and lock-outs than runaways,” said Dick Hirsch, vice-president of communications for Covenant House.
Each year 1 million young people run away from home in the United States. The Covenant House staff helped 48,000 of those last year, including 13,000 in crisis shelters, 14,000 at community service centers, and 21,000 others on the street with outreach workers. Their “nine-line” (800-999-9999) received 87,000 crisis calls in the same period.
“Things are getting worse,” said Sister Mary Rose McGeady DC, director of the Covenant House ministry. “We see increasing numbers.”
The ministry started in 1972 with a crisis shelter in New York. Since then they have assisted 400,000 young people and encourage a three-part solution: role models, mentors, and entry-level jobs. The organization has offices in 16 U.S. cities, with two in Canada and three in Latin America.
Sister McGeady came to Covenant House eight years ago from the Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Brooklyn. She had previously directed two treatment centers for severely disturbed children. (Father Bruce Ritter, the former Covenant House director, had just resigned after accusations that he sexually abused children.)
“My past was all preparation for this,” she said.
Since Sister McGeady's arrival, the ministry has expanded but conditions have worsened in New York. Bruce Henry, executive director of Covenant House in New York, said the public school system there had a graduation rate of 50% last year—and many of the non-graduates become unemployed drop outs.
Covenant House outreach workers take to the streets in a van each night to talk with young people. They take sandwiches and juice to help break the ice.
“It's an invitation for kids to come in the van and talk with us,” said Sister McGeady. “In that context, it's easier to invite them in.”
One recent night at 2:00 a.m., they found Janice, a 14-year-old in a loose halter, on a New York street curb.
“My boyfriend beats me up sometimes if I don't do what he tells me,” she told the staff members who had stopped to offer help.
Janice told them she had come from Iowa after a fight with parents. She met a “boyfriend” in a bus station. He promised to take care of her, but now she was pregnant and working as a prostitute. She wanted out, and agreed to accept help from Covenant House.
“Pimps have a lot to lose if their girls leave them,” explained Sister McGeady. “A typical young prostitute like Janice is worth thousands and thousands of dollars a year to her pimp.”
Liz, also 14, hails from London. Her mother needed money and left Liz with a local pimp. He forced her to swallow bags of cocaine for delivery through customs. Another “courier” died when a bag ruptured in her digestive track.
“I'm afraid one's gonna bust in my intestines and I'm going to die,” Liz told Sister McGeady. “I can't take it anymore.”
Sister McGeady said, “You'd be amazed how many of our kids are overwhelmed with embarrassment when they come to our shelter. Street kids are most scared of being looked down on—as if being 15, homeless, and unwanted is all their fault.”
At the shelter, a 10-yearold boy stopped to unload his pockets. He had 22 vials of crack cocaine and a 9mm pistol.
“Please help me,” he said…. “I just can't do this for my mother anymore.”
“Where'd you get the gun?” Sister McGeady asked.
“Comes with my job,” the boy replied, “but you can have it. They showed me how to shoot a cop if I have to. I just don't want to do that.”
According to Sister McGeady, it's rare that “street kids” come from a household where two parents are married and love each other. “Families are just falling apart right and left,” she said.
Paula Tibbetts is the public relations director for Covenant House in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a facility with 104 beds that helped 1,300 teens with shelter last year.
“They have these grown-up bodies but they're not able to survive on their own,” she said of the runaways. “This can be compounded when you've lived days or weeks without food.”
Tibbetts said that Fort Lauderdale's Covenant House ministry begins with “meeting basic needs,” such as food and a shower. Then begins a process that strives to reunites the family, if possible.
Residents under 18 are encouraged to telephone home within 24 hours of arrival. Aplan for something more stable is developed for those who can't return home, which may include drug treatment or help with job skills. Younger children are placed in foster care.
“There's no fixed length of stay,” said Tibbetts. “They all come from families that are not functioning well … not nurturing the kids.”
The ministry's biggest struggle now is to find entry level jobs for the young people. They're having to compete with the people coming off welfare roles since changes in federal law—but they're finding success.
Sister McGeady said Covenant House is encouraging young people to attend training programs for computer work, nursing, and teaching aids. Youngsters involved have found success once they learn the importance of commitment.
Beyond domestic services, Covenant House has expanded into Central America where 44% of all children are born to single mothers. According to Human Rights Watch, 90% of street children in Guatemala have inhalant addictions to such things as shoe glue and paint thinner.
Casa Alianza, a Latin American branch of Covenant House, began in Guatemala in 1981. The organization now has branches in Honduras and Mexico. Last year they helped 4,000 children through a four-step system of street outreach, move to crisis shelters, transition, and placement in group homes.
In many parts of Latin America, much of the violence against children comes at the hands of soldiers and police. In the last seven years, Casa Alianza has made 365 criminal complaints against 530 individuals, most of them in the state security forces. Charges range from torture to murder. The Guatemalan judicial system resolved only 14 of those cases—less than 4% of the complaints.
“We are not willing nor able to throw in the towel and let the authorities get away with murder,” said Bruce Harris, executive director of Latin American programs.
One local study of 143 street children in Guatemala City found that every one of them had been sexually abused. Approximately 78% had genital herpes, and 64% of the girls reported their first sexual encounter was with their fathers.
Marcos Fidel Solorzano was just 12-years-old when he began begging for chicken in Guatemala. Two men handed him a bag that appeared to be a meal. It held a bomb that went off in the boy's face. Solorzano died.
The work is just as dangerous for Casa Alianza staff members.
“Our crisis center was covered with machine gun fire by three men who came looking to kill me,” explained Harris. “Three of our Guatemala staff are living in Canada because of threats against them.”
The Covenant House cemetery in Guatemala City has 42 graves filled.
“We take any kid that comes to our door,” Sister McGeady said. “There's very few kids that you can't help once you win their trust.”
Clay Renick writes from Martinez, Ga.