By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published July 15, 2004
As part of her inaugural tour of the 21 branches of Covenant House, its new national president Sister Patricia A. Cruise recently visited the Atlanta site, which is raising funds to build a 40-bed crisis shelter.
Since opening in August 2000, Covenant House Georgia has served about 3,000 youth and is the youngest branch of the agency, which has centers across the United States, including those opened since 1995 in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Oakland, Calif., St. Louis and Michigan, as well as others in Central America, Mexico and Canada. Based in New York, Covenant House was founded in 1972 by a Franciscan priest to serve homeless and runaway youth. It is now the nation’s largest privately funded childcare agency.
The Atlanta outreach service center, located near the Five Points MARTA Station on Broad Street, where teens can be found roaming the streets at night, is cheerful with a modern, converted warehouse look, large windows and classrooms for GED and computer instruction. Its administrative offices at 2488 Lakewood Ave. are in an attractive two-story brick building on a grassy lot with the organization logo out front of a hand holding a dove and a house. It is located in south Atlanta’s Polar Rock area, which is infested with crime, drugs and prostitution. The proposed crisis shelter is to be built on this property, but the ground-breaking was recently pushed back tentatively to January, due to a lag in the $4.3 million capital campaign. Nonetheless, on July 19 staff will open a second outreach center on the first floor of the Lakewood site and there will be an open house there on July 23 from 12-9 p.m.
As Covenant House social workers say, they meet teens where they’re at. Sister Cruise was impressed.
“This is absolutely beautiful, and I think they’ve done a good job in laying it out with access for kids to come and be here and feel safe here, and space for professionals to do their work with the kids . . . It really is an atmosphere of care,” she said in an interview at the Lakewood office.
“We can provide a safe, clean, upbeat, professional atmosphere for them to work through whatever issues they have and prepare for life. That’s our goal and we do that openly, and there’s never a kid who’s turned away from our door. We have an open intake policy, and I think the mission statement is right on when it says that Covenant House provides unconditional love and absolute respect for everybody.”
A Sister of Charity from Boston, Sister Cruise said she is honored to lead the organization where she became president in October 2003. She previously served as executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, S.D., which is under the leadership of the Jesuits. There she had supervisory responsibility for two elementary schools, a high school, 16 Catholic parishes and a museum on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She holds a master’s degree from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.
“I feel very privileged to do what I do . . . It’s not something I ever thought I’d be involved in and so I just think it is God’s grace that put me here,” she said of her new position.
Last year CH served 60,000 youth in the United States, 10,000 more than the year before. Since she took over, she’s received letters from at least 15 different cities asking, “Would you please set up shop here? We have problems.”
In an interview with the Associated Press, she attributed the growing need for youth services to the country’s weak family structure and drug problem.
“The family system is a huge issue . . . The family structure is not as strong as it used to be. The support systems aren’t as good as they used to be when grandmas aren’t around the corner,” she said. “Obviously, the drug issue in this country and around the world is horrendous, and our kids fall into it.”
Covenant House was founded by Father Bruce Ritter in New York City’s Times Square and in 32 years has provided shelter and services to nearly 700,000 homeless and runaway youth. Sister Cruise succeeds Sister Mary Rose McGeady, who retired after leading Covenant House for 15 years.
In Atlanta, Covenant House serves youth generally from 16 to 21 who face a variety of problems including homelessness (which can range from living on the streets to “couch-surfing” from one relative’s home to another’s), substance abuse, child abuse and dropping out of high school. Staff members deal with many teens escaping prostitution and are just beginning to tap into the Hispanic community and the problem of human trafficking, where those from places such as Central America are forced into prostitution or involuntary labor to survive.
Andre Eaton, executive director of Covenant House Georgia, said he expected the first year to reach 100 kids but through outreach served 700 plus 300 more walk-ins. About 77 percent are referrals or friends of others who’ve been helped.
They reach out through their van that staff members take out nightly from midnight to morning in places where youth hang out across the metro area, offering them help.
“Kids are just scared to do a whole lot of things once they’re in the position of being homeless. Some need medical treatment. We have networking with health care facilities and other social service facilities and the legal profession for kids who find themselves in trouble with the law and don’t know how to get out of it,” Eaton said.
There are 27 staff members in Atlanta. Programs include job readiness training, housing assistance, parenting skills and life skills workshops, and pregnancy and prevention.
Eaton said that emergency shelter beds for youth in crisis are virtually nonexistent in the area.
“The reason why we came to Georgia is that there were no beds for the population that we serve. For potentially about 11,000 kids there are potentially about 28 beds—we can count them on our hand. There are just not enough resources,” he continued.
He said the crisis center “is so important” because right now kids end up in a juvenile detention center. “Instead of detaining kids, which they still do in Georgia (this would be) finding them a better alternative,” he said.
The facility will be for both girls and boys, with five beds reserved for mothers with babies.
“The hope is that in the next year and a half we’ll have a new house in a building attached to this one that will have 40 beds so we can take kids on more long term so that they can finish programs, get job training, they can go to their job without losing their space,” Eaton said. “If a youngster finds a job and is in the Rites of Passage program they go to their bed, they have their own space, three meals a day, they have to pay rent, but when they pay rent and it’s time for them to leave and get their own apartment . . . the funds go back to them. So it’s kind of like a savings account security for them as they leave.”
Misha Nonen, outreach center program coordinator, often has to refer youth to adult shelters because nothing else is available and is eager to see CH open its crisis shelter to provide a safe, loving environment where youth can clean up, get three meals and get rested up in order to get back on their feet—and to work.
“Youth homelessness is a crisis and (so is) babies with moms who are homeless. There are very few places that will take mothers and babies. Our mission is to help all street kids. We’re to give them unconditional love, support and respect and in that we are attempting to build relationships in order to move them onto the next level of their life and guide them,” she said. “We try to give them the skills and tools to be self-sufficient.”
About 40 percent of youth come from the foster care system, as when they turn 18 they’re no longer eligible for the program. Eaton calls them the oldest of kids but youngest of adults.
“CH is unique in that we serve kids that no one else really wants to deal with—runaways, throwaways, kids who are sort of aging out of the foster care system. In our mission we say that we serve kids of the street and that really is the whole mission of CH . . . These are kids that pretty much folks have written off and say if they haven’t made it by the time they’re 18 they should be adults or acting as adults,” Eaton said. “So CH is really a second chance place for them. They drop out of high school, and we can help them get their GED. If they’re unemployed we can help them get the job training they need or refer them to a job through our job readiness workshop, get them prepared for a job so that they can actually go out and live. So CH is not just a handout organization, which is going to give you something. You have to go to CH willing to be able to take care of yourselves. We want to get you to the highest level of independence that we can possibly get you.”
As the national president, Sister Cruise will focus largely on fund raising and said that CH relies on donations and direct mail appeals, with about $68 million a year coming in that way. They work with corporations and foundations and with the government on certain programs like the GED. All money given in Georgia stays in Georgia. They are always looking for mentors and professionals willing to donate services in areas such as mental health care.
Eaton said that Archbishop John F. Donoghue has been “a friend” from the beginning and that they hope to further strengthen ties with the archdiocese and particularly with Catholic Social Services “to build a strong coalition.”
Sister Cruise noted the importance of reaching youth before adulthood.
“Homeless kids mean homeless adults. It’s so important that we get them now so that, number one, they live to be adults and they have what they need to survive and live and grow and be happy with life. It’s funny how many kids come into the crisis center and they’re asked the question ‘What do you want to do?’ and they say, ‘I need a job. I want to work.’”
Eaton knows firsthand the challenges some youth can face, as he grew up in a very rough area of New York and was “on the way to trouble” when he got into the Better Chance program, which enrolled him in boarding school. From there he went on to graduate from college and earn a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
“I come from a very destitute area in Brooklyn, N.Y., and just feel like I really want to give back to the kids. To whom much is given much is required,” he said. “My story is not that different than a lot of the kids.”