By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 4, 2013
ATLANTA—Lanetta Dorsey had a stormy relationship with an aunt who raised her, facing abuse of all kinds before she was tossed out to fend for herself on the streets.
“She was calling me everything but my name,” said Dorsey. “I was in and out of garbage. It was really bad.”
She faced a nomadic life at 18, in and out of mental health facilities, moving from her native Chicago to St. Louis looking for family to take her in.
Part of the issue was money as her aunt had little financial support herself, but it was also Dorsey’s sexual identity. Her family’s religious beliefs clashed when she told her family she was gay.
“How could someone love me when my own family doesn’t love me?” she asked herself.
She found acceptance four years later at Covenant House Georgia which now motivates her to attend college and study social work so she can help others like herself.
“I thought they were going to judge me, especially because I was gay, but they didn’t,” Dorsey said.
Covenant House Georgia serves youth generally from 16 to 21 years old who face a variety of problems, including homelessness (which can mean living on the streets or “couch-surfing” from one relative’s home to another), drug abuse, having been abused as a child, or dropping out of high school.
Last year the nonprofit served 496 young people at a facility in south Fulton County, which had just 15 beds. And when the maximum capacity of 25 girls and boys crowded into it, the overflow slept on mats. And still 140 waited to get a bed.
Recently, leaders at Covenant House opened the doors at a new campus at 1559 Johnson Road that can serve more than four times as many young men and women.
“We care about them. We are rooted in Christian principles. We provide a way out. We are not just a shelter,” said Allison Ashe, the executive director.
At the ribbon-cutting, Kevin Ryan, CEO of the international organization, called the new buildings a “bridge from homelessness to hope.”
Some 80 beds replace 15. The seven-acre campus has cottages for independent living, rooms for art therapy and exercise classes. Volunteers run weekly Bible classes, prepare and serve meals, and help students earn their high school equivalency diploma.
“It was really set up perfectly for our need,” Ashe said about the one-time public school. More recently, it had served as a youth center.
Covenant House was founded by the late Father Bruce Ritter in New York City’s Times Square and in 42 years has provided shelter and services to hundreds of thousands of homeless and runaway youth. For many years, the nonprofit was led by a Catholic sister, Sister Mary Rose McGeady, and then by Sister Patricia Cruise. Now a Franciscan brother sits on the board of directors with Ryan, a Catholic youth advocate, lawyer and father, at the helm.
It describes itself as the largest privately funded agency providing shelter, food and immediate crisis care to homeless and runaway youth.
The shelter in Atlanta opened its doors in 2000, making it one of the newest in the network of Covenant House shelters across the country and Latin America.
High youth unemployment and school dropout rates, in addition to significant poverty, make Atlanta a challenge for advocates. A one-night survey estimated there are 351 teens who are homeless nightly in Atlanta, and some 1,800 homeless statewide, said Ashe.
“We believe the 351 is a massive under-count,” she said.
In addition to shelter, staff and Covenant House young people visit areas where homeless teens hang out and offer help, bringing food and hygiene kits.
With full beds and a long waiting list, the facility in south Atlanta became too small. The program embarked on a $4.1 million fundraising campaign. They still need to raise $1 million. Private foundations run by Catholics made sizable donations to the effort. Also, the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia gave $10,000 to the campaign.
Volunteers are also needed. Ashe said the clients are simply amazed at how strangers come and spend time with them. She praised the volunteers from All Saints Church, Dunwoody, who volunteer and said she would like to build stronger connections between the Catholic community and the organization.
Toni Vilardi, who teaches theology at Blessed Trinity High School, Roswell, wants to engage her students with Covenant House.
Her goal is to have students bring musical instruments and organize a jam session or perhaps video games to play. It would bring together folks the same age with very backgrounds.
“It opens their eyes that there are people their age, who are living very different lifestyles,” she said about her students.
Another lesson students learn is that reaching out feels good, she said.
“I like the idea of young people reaching out to young people,” Vilardi said.
The independent living cottages are tucked behind the leafy courtyard. A plot of dirt nearby is becoming a garden. The cottage will be home to eight women once the transition is complete.
Above Dorsey’s bed is a handwritten poster. Given to her at Bible study, it has verses from Psalm 37. “Be still before the Lord, wait for him.”
In the past, she worked as a certified nurse’s aide. Dorsey in the fall hopes to attend a local community college to earn an associate’s degree, then transfer to Georgia State University.
“I’m not letting my past get in the way of my goals,” she said.
For a woman who has faced rejection from family, life on the streets, and an uncertain future, she remains confident. “He blessed me in so many ways. He blessed me more than I could ever thank him for.”
Said Dorsey, “I’m in a rush. I have to be patient in the Lord and let him do his work.”