On November 21st, armed with a sleeping bag and a piece of cardboard, I will sleep outside to help the homeless youth at Covenant House.
It will be cold. It will be dark. But for one night many of us will give up the comforts of home knowing it can bring warmth and brightness to the young people who need it most.
But first, here are a few success stories to hopefully inspire you:
Adam - Finding a voice and a future
When Adam moved from our crisis shelter to our CIBC Rights of Passage program, it had been two years since he last spoke in full sentences. He could communicate, but he wouldn’t say more than a word or two. One day, his youth worker Genevieve accompanied him on an appointment in the community. Like usual, he was quiet. Instead of asking him questions about himself, she tried something different. "I asked Adam if he wanted to ask me anything to get to know me better," explained Genevieve. "After some time, he asked me two questions. He wanted to know what age I was when I started talking and if there was ever a moment in my life that I stopped talking for a period of time.” They connected over the fact that Genevieve didn’t speak until she was four years old. By sharing a part of her private life with Adam, he began to open up. Soon, he found his voice. Adam advocated for himself to extend his stay so he could finish high school at Covenant House. He excelled in computer science and was proud to share that he received an award for his marks. We held a celebration for his award and his high school graduation. Adam also joined our mentorship program and gained a mentor who encouraged him to take care of his mind and body. They went to the gym together regularly. To this day, they stay in touch. Since moving out, Adam lives on his own in the community and often connects with Genevieve to let her know how he is doing. He’s thinking about pursuing a career in computer science or engineering. With his new voice and the positive relationships he has built, the future for Adam has so many possibilities.
Courtney - Overcoming obstacles at her own pace
Courtney arrived at Covenant House with a drug problem and an unstable life. She’d been on the street for years struggling with addiction and the lifestyle had taken a toll. Courtney would visit our Community Support Services drop-in centre to meet with Oneil, her outreach worker. But she often didn’t show up to her scheduled appointments. Oneil always welcomed her with unconditional respect, love and encouragement and offered the support and advice Courtney needed—even when she came in unannounced. Despite all of her obstacles, Courtney showed remarkable resilience. With support, time and patience, she began to make changes in her life. She completed a day program to help with her substance use and is attending other programs in the community and meeting with her workers consistently. She has her own place now, but Courtney visits Oneil at Covenant House every week for help with learning how to cook . “Together, we try out new recipes and she has become quite the chef!” said Oneil. Many youth like Courtney miss out on learning basic life skills that are often taken for granted--like cooking, housekeeping and grocery shopping.“The growth I have seen in Courtney is remarkable,” reflects Oneil. “She is more motivated, positive and hard-working than ever. She is now in the process of enrolling in the George Brown transition program for individuals interested in going back to school. I am so proud of her and how far she has come. I know that she has a great future ahead of her.”
Rachel - Learning how to heal and thrive
A picturesque seaside town in the Maritimes was the backdrop of a childhood filled with violence, trauma and abuse for Rachel, mostly at the hands of her mother. At 13, she spent six months in juvenile detention. Later, she lived in various foster families and group homes. When she eventually moved back home, her mother continued to abuse her. Rachel fled to the nearest large city at the age of 18. It was there that Rachel found a job in the restaurant of a major hotel. She was a quick study in the kitchen and soon learned she had a passion for cooking. She was promoted and won many awards for her culinary creations. However, despite her success, Rachel struggled with mental health issues that stemmed from her childhood trauma. Looking for a fresh start, she moved to Toronto, but soon found herself homeless. Not knowing what else to do, she made her way to Covenant House. And everything changed. With the support of staff and connections to other youth, Rachel set her sights on a path forward. She applied to our transitional housing program and is getting the care and medication she needs. This has helped her address her mental health challenges and create a customized action plan for the future. Rachel’s innate resilience and newfound life skills have allowed her to dream big—and begin to plan for success. Toronto is home for now, but the Maritime shores still call to her. Her dream is to return to her roots and someday open her own restaurant. Knowing Rachel, anything is possible.
Mark - Changing a life leads to changing the world
Mark’s childhood home was a battle zone. His father would explode in anger and physically abuse his son. Hardened from her own difficult life, his mother was often cold and hostile. After a run of domestic disturbances in his home, the police picked up Mark at school when he was 13 and took him to a halfway house for boys. He lived there for four years before he was too old to stay there. With nowhere else to go, he headed to Toronto. After a couple of difficult nights sleeping in a park, he found himself in one of the city’s men’s shelters. An older resident told him, “I wish I was a kid like you and could go to Covenant House.” When he arrived at our doorstep, Mark instantly experienced culture shock. Attentive, respectful, loving support was not familiar to him. “It’s almost a scary thing to get used to after years of nobody caring at all,” he said. Mark drew strength from the youth workers who supported him. Their mentorship and coaching helped him develop the self-confidence that would power him forward. With his youth worker’s support, Mark put together a plan to build the life he wanted for himself. He returned to school and got a weekend job at a lumberyard. After he moved out on his own, he often visited the Covenant House drop-in centre for advice and encouragement. Today, Mark is a paramedic and he runs his own first aid training company. He’s married to the love of his life and has two children. “Covenant House has a hand in every life we save. I hope I can pay it back, and forward, one day.”
Nathaniel - Rising above hate to build a better life
Before Nathaniel was old enough to understand why, he was tormented for being gay. He grew up in a large family on a small Caribbean island and he had to avoid the hatred and bullying of others. Neither school nor home was safe. In high school, Nathaniel got a job at a resort and discovered his gift for hospitality. International visitors loved his charm and helpfulness and he appreciated their worldliness and tolerance. Despite this success, Nathaniel continued to face discrimination for being gay. He knew that at some point he would need to leave the island. Nathaniel heard about Canada for the first time from his friends. By the time he was in his late teens, he had done his research and paperwork. When Nathaniel began experiencing harassment at his workplace, he knew the time was right to leave. Even though he had planned his immigration carefully, Nathaniel had trouble finding housing in Toronto. A refugee centre told him about Covenant House. Right away Nathaniel knew he had found a safe and accepting place to land. He visited our drop-in centre and was ultimately set up in one of our community apartments. He returned to us frequently to use our food and clothing bank, to get a warm meal and to connect with staff. “The staff are perfect examples of people who are always there for you. It was all amazing to me. Anytime I stopped by, I had really supportive conversations with everyone. I got help with things like applying to OHIP or advice about school programs.” According to a survey of youth at Covenant House, 17 per cent identified as LGBTQ2S+ and 19 per cent left or were kicked out of their family home due to gender or sexuality issues. That is why it is critical that our doors are open to youth 16 to 24 regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other circumstances that have brought them to seek support. Today, Nathaniel is a server at restaurant and also works at the refugee centre that helped him when he first arrived. His long-term goal is to work with youth, ideally as a high school guidance counsellor. “I felt like I had to grow up too quickly, so I want to be there for other youth during that time.”
More on Covenant House:
WHY AM I SLEEPING OUT?
On any given night in Canada, there may be at least 6000 homeless youth
on the street. Covenant House helps youth ignite their potential and reclaim their lives. As Canada’s largest agency serving youth who are homeless, trafficked or at risk, they offer the widest range of 24-7 services to about 350 young people each day.
As a national leader, Covenant House educates and advocates for long-term change to improve the lives of vulnerable youth. This includes influencing public policy, leading awareness and prevention programs and continually building and sharing their knowledge. As a learning organization, they strive for excellence and programs with impact.
More than a place to stay, Covenant House provides life-changing care with unconditional love and respect. They meet youth’s immediate needs and then work together with the youth to achieve their future goals. Covenant House offers housing options, health and well-being support, training and skill development, and ongoing care once youth move into the community.
Thanks to their donors, who contribute almost 80 per cent of their $33 million annual operating budget, Covenant House is able to deliver these comprehensive programs and services.
Since 1982, Covenant House has supported more than 95,000 young people.