How a NYC Shelter is Protecting Homeless Youth During COVID-19

Youth facing homelessness are at greater risk because they are still developing physically, cognitively, psychologically, and emotionally, and often lack health insurance, resulting in health problems going unchecked, medication being beyond their reach, and even minor untreated infections morphing into a major health emergency. Covenant house in NYC alone shelters around 300 of these kids a night.

Covenant House NY executive director Sister Nancy Downing discusses the risks for kids experiencing homelessness on their own, her concern about the coming spike in youth homelessness, and how Covenant House is continuing to serve youth through the pandemic.

TRANSCRIPT

> WELCOME TO ‘METROFOCUS.’

I’M JACK FORD.

AS THE CORONAVIRUS HAS CONTINUED ITS ASSAULT ON OUR SOCIETY, ONE GROUP IN PARTICULAR HAS BECOME VERY VULNERABLE.

AND WE SEE THE PERSISTENCE THAT THIS GROUP REQUIRES, THAT GROUP IS THE YOUNG HOMELESS, YOUNG ADULTS, PARTICULARLY ASSISTED IN THE DANGERS OF THE CORONAVIRUS.

YOUNG HOMELESS PEOPLE.

WE’RE PLEASED TO HAVE JOINING US RIGHT NOW, NANCY DOWNING WHO IS THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE COVENANT HOUSE IN NEW YORK.

SISTER NANCY JOINS US EXAMINING POVERTY IN AMERICA.

THANKS FOR JOINING US.

THANKS SO MUCH FOR HAVING TODAY.

IT’S ESTIMATED THAT IN ANY GIVEN YEAR ON AN ANNUAL BASIS WE’LL SEE 4.2 MILLION YOUNG PEOPLE BETWEEN THE AGES OF 13 AND 24 EXPERIENCE HOMELESSNESS.

4.2 MILLION.

I CAN’T EMPHASIZE THAT ENOUGH, BECAUSE PEOPLE DON’T BELIEVE THAT YOUNG PEOPLE ARE HOMELESS.

THEY THINK THEY CAN JUST GO BACK HOME TO THEIR PARENTS.

AND IT’S JUST NOT THE TRUTH.

LET ME ASK YOU ABOUT THIS, BECAUSE I THINK THIS IS IMPORTANT AND AN IMPORTANT DISTOIDI DISTINCTION TO MAKE.

THERE ARE YOUNG PEOPLE WHO ARE HOMELESS WITH THEIR FAMILIES, AND THEN OTHER YOUNG PEOPLE WHO ARE HOMELESS ALONE.

THAT NUMBER YOU JUST GAVE VUS, S THAT THE NUMBER OF YOUNG PEOPLE HOMELESS ALONE?

YES, THEY DO NOT HAVE AN ADULT WITH THEM AT THE TIME.

LET’S TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT COVENANT HOUSE, JUST FOR SOME BACKDROP HERE AND THEN I WANT TO GET INTO SOME SPECIFICS.

BUT WHAT TYPES OF SERVICES ARE PROVIDED BY COVENANT HOUSE?

SO WE’RE BEST KNOWN FOR PROVIDING SHELTER TO YOUNG PEOPLE WHO ARE EXPERIENCE HOMELESSNESS AND YOUNG PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN TRAFFICKED.

BUT I THINK MORE THAN SHELTER, WE PROVIDE ALL OF THE BASIC NEEDS FOR A YOUNG PERSON WHEN THEY COME THROUGH OUR DOOR WE’RE FIRST ASKING THEM, YOU KNOW, DO YOU NEED SOMETHING TO EAT?

DO YOU NEED TO TAKE A SHOWER?

DO YOU NEED FRESH CLOTHE SOMETHING DO YOU NEED TO JUST SLEEP FOR A WHILE?

AND THEN TALK WITH US ABOUT SOME OTHER NEEDS.

SO WE’RE FOCUSING ON NOT JUST THEIR BASIC NEEDS, THE NEED FOR SHELTER, FOOD, CLOTHING, WE’RE LOOKING AT MEDICAL NEEDS.

MANY OF THEM HAVEN’T SEEN DOCTORS FOR A LONG TIME AND HAVE HEALTH CARE ISSUES FROM BEING OUT ON THE STREETS HOMELESS.

MANY HAVE MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES EITHER FROM THE TRAUMA OF BEING HOMELESS OR THE TRAUMA OF HAVING VIOLENCE IN THEIR FAMILIES OR IN THEIR NEIGHBORHOODS, OR THEY COME WITH MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES THAT ARE NOT RELATED TO THE HOMELESSNESS THAT ARE FURTHER EXACERBATED BY HOMELESSNESS.

SO WE HAVE STRONG MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES FOR THEM.

EDUCATIONAL SERVICES ARE CRITICAL FOR THESE YOUNG PEOPLE.

MANY YOUNG PEOPLE HAVE BEEN DISCONNECTED FROM EDUCATION SO WE TRY TO GET THEM BACK INTO SCHOOL OR GED CLASSES.

AND THEN OBVIOUSLY EMPLOYMENT SERVICES ARE CRITICAL AS WELL BECAUSE IF YOU’RE GOING TO BE ON YOUR OWN, YOU NEED TO HAVE A WAY OF EARNING MONEY TO BE ABLE TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.

AND SO MAKING SURE THAT THEY HAVE EMPLOYMENT IS A CRITICAL NEED AS WELL.

AND IN ADDITION TO THOSE SERVICES WE OFFER LEGAL SERVICES, YOUTH DEVELOPMENT SERVICES AND A WHOLE HOST OF OTHER THINGS WHEN THEY’RE WITH US.

ON AN AVERAGE, HOW MANY YOUNG HOMELESS PEOPLE WILL BE WITH YOU IN COVENANT HOUSE NEW YORK ON A PARTICULAR DAY?

SO RIGHT NOW WE HAVE OVER 300 YOUNG PEOPLE STAYING WITH US.

SO WE HAVE ABOUT 130 STAYING WITH US IN OUR SHELTER.

WE HAVE ABOUT ANOTHER 100 YOUNG PEOPLE THAT ARE IN OUR TRANSITIONAL LIVING PROGRAMS WHERE THEY CAN LIVE FOR UP TO TWO YEARS.

AND THEN WE HAVE CLOSE TO 100 IN OUR PERMANENT SUPPORTIVE HOW’SIHOUSING WHERE THEY’RE LIVING IN APARTMENT SETTINGS AND LEARNING TO LIVE ON THEIR OWN WITH COVENANT HOUSE.

I MENTIONED IN MY INTRODUCTION THIS IS A GROUP THAT’S PARTICULARLY VULNERABLE.

WHY IS THAT SO?

AND LET’S FOCUS ON THE CORONAVIRUS.

THE PANDEMIC HERE.

WHY IS THIS GROUP, YOUNG HOMELESS PEOPLE, PARTICULARLY VULNERABLE BOTH MEDICALLY AND PSYCHOLOGICALLY AND EMOTIONALLY?

SO, FIRST OF ALL, WHEN YOU’RE HOMELESS AND ON THE STREETS YOU DON’T HAVE ACCESS TO HEALTHY FOOD TO EAT SO YOU’RE NOT EATING HEALTHY.

YOU DON’T HAVE A SAFE PLACE TO SLEEP SO YOU’RE NOT SLEEPING WELL, IF YOU’RE SLEEPING AT ALL.

YOU DON’T HAVE A FLIESPLACE TO UP OR WASH YOUR HANDS FREE KW FREEQUENTLY.

AND YOU’RE EVEN MORE SO BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE THE BASIC NEEDS THAT YOU NEED TO SHELTER IN PLACE.

WHEN FOLKS ARE TOLD TO STAY HOME, THEY DON’T HAVE A PLACE TO STAY.

THEY’RE OUT ON THE STREETS AND MUCH MORE SUSCEPTIBLE TO ALL KINDS OF ILLNESS, INCLUDING THIS CORONAVIRUS.

WE’RE SPEAKING ONCE AGAIN WITH SISTER NANCY DOWNING WHO’S THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF COVENANT HOUSE NEW YORK.

WHAT ABOUT THE ENHANCED SUSCEPTIBILITY FOR THE HOMELESS IN GENERAL IN TERMS OF BEING IN HOMELESS SHELTERS AND IN HOMES?

HOW DOES THAT ALL PLAY OUT?

SO I THINK, YOU KNOW, WHAT WE LEARNED AT THE VERY BEGINNING OF THIS VIRUS IS THAT WE HAD TO PROVIDE — NORMALLY WE HAVE THREE TO FOUR YOUNG PEOPLE IN A BEDROOM.

AND SO WHAT WE DID WAS WE CLOSED DOWN OUR OFFICES AND MADE THEM INTO BEDROOMS SO THAT WE CAN MAKE SURE THAT EACH YOUNG PERSON HAD SIX FEET OF DISTANCE IN THEIR BEDROOMS SO THAT WE HAVE MAYBE TWO OR THREE YOUNG PEOPLE IN A BEDROOM SO THAT WE’RE GIVING THEM MORE SPACE SO THAT WE’RE NOT MAKING THEM MORE SUSCEPTIBLE TO THE VIRUS WHEN THEY’RE IN OUR SHELTER.

WE WANT THE SHELTER TO BE A SAFE PLACE FOR THEM TO BE.

SO THEY DON’T HAVE A BIG CONGREGATE ROOM WHERE THEY’RE ALL — THEY’RE SEPARATE BEDROOMS AND WE HAVE ONLY TWO TO THREE IN A BEDROOM WITH SIX FEET OF DISTANCE BETWEEN THEM.

IN OUR GENERAL SPACES, WE’RE MAKING SURE THEY’RE WEARING MASKS, KEEPING SIX FEAST DISTANCE, THE SAME WITH OUR STAFF, BUT ALSO WE’RE CLEANING, ENDLESSLY CLEANING THROUGHOUT THE DAY.

WE EVEN PURCHASED ONE OF THE ELECTRO STATIC SPRAY GUNS TO BE ABLE TO SPRAY DOWN LOCATIONS LIKE THEY DO IN THE HOSPITALS TO MAKE SURE WE’RE GIVING EXTRA CLEANLINESS TO THESE FACES TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF OUR STAFF AND YOUTH IN THE SHELTER.

ONE OF THE THINGS WE’VE SEEN FREQUENTLY WHEN PEOPLE HAVE BEEN TALKING ABOUT THIS STAYING AT HOME IS THE NOTION OF — THE IDEA OF BEING AT HOME WITH FAMILY AND SHARING WHAT IS A DIFFICULT EXPERIENCE.

BUT YOU HAVE FAMILY TO SHARE IT WITH.

WE’VE HAD PEOPLE ON OUR PROGRAM TALKING ABOUT PSYCHOLOGICALLY HOW CAN THAT — THAT CAN BE SO SUPPORTIVE FOR PEOPLE IN TIMES OF CRISIS.

SO, WHAT THEN DO WE SEE WITH THESE YOUNG PEOPLE WHO DON’T HAVE FAMILY TO SHELTER WITH?

YEAH.

SO OUR STAFF ARE HAVING LOTS OF CONVERSATIONS WITH OUR YOUNG PEOPLE.

THERE ARE RESIDENT ADVISERS THAT ARE MEETING FREQUENTLY WITH THEM, CASE MANAGERS.

WE ALSO HAVE A LARGE NUMBER OF SOCIAL WORKERS.

FOR YOUNG PEOPLE WHO ARE FINDING THIS PARTICULARLY TRAUMATIZING, WE WANT TO ENSURE FROM AN EMOTIONAL STANDPOINT THAT THEIR EMOTIONAL HEALTH IS WELL CARED FOR.

WE HAVE OUR SOCIAL WORKERS ON CALL PRETTY MUCH AROUND THE CLOCK SO THAT IF A YOUNG PERSON IS GOING THROUGH SOME KIND OF TRAU TRAUMA OR REACTION, THERE’S SOMEBODY THERE THEY CAN TALK TO.

BUT OUR STAFF ARE DOING A WONDERFUL JOB OF BEING PRESENT WITH THEM, SITTING AND LISTENING TO THEM, HAVING LISTENING SESSIONS.

OUR YOUTH DEVELOPMENT TEAM IS ALSO WORKING WITH THEM.

SOMETIMES IT’S OVER JUST A CAUSAL CONVERSATION, SOMETIMES IT’S OVER A CARD GAME.

SO WE’RE TRYING TO MAKE THINGS PRETTY NORMAL FOR OUR YOUNG PEOPLE, AS NORMAL AS WE CAN.

HAVING GAME NIGHTS, WAYS THAT WE’RE INTERACTING WITH THEM THAT ARE MORE PLAYFUL AND FUN, BUT IN SMALLER GROUPS WHERE THERE’S SIX FEET OF SEPARATION BETWEEN US.

AND SO THERE’S LOTS OF LITTLE GROUP INTERACTIONS HAPPENING.

WE HAVE ARTWORK, YOU KNOW, ART CLASSES THAT ARE HAPPENING WITH THEM TO GIVE THEM THAT AS AN OUTLET.

MUSIC TO GIVE THEM AS AN OUTLET.

SOME WRITING WITH A VIRTUAL WRITING TEACHER WHO COMES SO THAT FOR OUR YOUNG PEOPLE WHO FOR POETRY IS A DESIRE FOR THEM OR A TALENT FOR THEM, I SHOULD SAY.

THEY HAVE THOSE OPPORTUNITIES.

BUT TRY TO MAKE THINGS AS NORMALIZED AS WE CAN FOR THEM AND OFFERING THE MOST BASE WHEN’S THEY HAVE THOSE MOMENTS WHEN THEY FEEL LIKE THEY NEED TO TALK THAT THEY HAVE SOMEONE TO SHARE WHAT THEIR CONCERNS ARE.

HAVE YOU SEEN AN UPTICK IN THE NUMBER OF THE YOUNG PEOPLE WHO ARE COMING TO YOU IN THE LAST COUPLE OF MONTHS SINCE THE — SINCE THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC HAS STRUCK?

WE’VE SEEN A PRETTY STEADY FLOW OF YOUNG PEOPLE COMING IN.

WE HAVE NOT HAD TO TURN ANYONE AWAY BECAUSE OF SPACE SO WE STILL HAVE THE BEDS AVAILABLE.

SO WE’RE FEELING THAT WE’RE VERY FORTUNATE IN THAT WAY.

CONCERN IS THAT IN THE MONTHS TO COME.

IT ECONOMY DOESN’T TURN TO THE BETTER VERY SOON, WE PROBABLY WILL SEE MANY MORE YOUNG PEOPLE COME TO US AS WE DID WITH THE ECONOMIC DOWNTURN BACK IN 2008.

THAT’S THE CERTAIN GOING FORWARD IS THAT WE MAY SEE A HUGE INFLUX OF YOUNG PEOPLE NEEDING OUR SERVICES.

SO WE’RE TRYING TO PREPARE FOR THAT AS WELL.

WOULD YOU HAVE CURRENTLY THE AVAILABILITY, THE FACILITIES, THE WHEREWITHAL TO HANDLE AN INCREASE, A SIGNIFICANT INCREASE ON PEOPLE COMING TO YOU?

WELL, IT WOULD CERTAINLY BE A CHALLENGE FOR US.

I MEAN, WE HAVE THE ABILITY, WE’RE IN THE MIDST OF A BUILDING PROJECT AS WELL AT THIS MOMENT.

SO WE’RE IN THE MIDST OF BUILDING A NEW FACILITY.

ONE THAT WE’RE IN IS RATHER DATED, SO IT WILL BE A BIT OF A CHALLENGE FOR US, BUT WE WILL ZO CERTAINLY DO EVERYTHING THAT WE CAN AND OTHER PARTNERS IN THIS FIELD TO MAKE SURE EVERY YOUTH HAS A SPACE, A SAFE SPACE WHEN THEY NEED IT.

YOU MENTIONED EARLIER SOME OF THE THINGS THAT YOU DO ARE PREPARING THESE YOUNG PEOPLE TO GET THEM BACK OUT INTO THE WORLD.

BUT WE DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT WORLD IS GOING TO LOOK LIKE AND WE DON’T KNOW WHEN ANYBODY CAN TRULY GET BACK OUT INTO THAT WORLD.

SO HOW DOES THAT UNCERTAINTY IMPACT THE WORK THAT YOU ALL ARE DOING?

WELL, THE DIFFICULTY IS MOST OF THESE YOUNG PEOPLE HAVE BEEN VERY TRAUMATIZED IN THEIR SHORT LIVES.

AND SO THIS IS JUST ADDING A LAYER OF TRAUMA TO THEM.

SO IMAGINE THE YOUNG PERSON WHO’S JUST GOTTEN OUT INTO THEIR OWN APARTMENT, THEY’VE GOTTEN A JOB THAT IS HELPING THEM TO STAY IN THEIR AMOPARTMENT.

THEY’VE WORKED HARD TO GET TO THAT PLACE AND SUDDENLY THE CARPET IS RIPPED OUT FROM UNDER THEIR FEET AND THEY’VE LOST THEIR JOB NOW.

SO WE’RE DEALING WITH SOME OF THAT TRAUMA THAT’S HAPPENING FOR OUR YOUNG PEOPLE THAT WERE JUST GETTING GOING AND SUDDENLY THIS HAS HAPPENED AND THEY’VE LOST THAT GROUND THAT THEY FELT THAT THEY GAINED.

SO WORKING WITH THEM IN TERMS OF SAYING, OKAY, THIS IS A MOMENTARY SETBACK, LET’S LOOK AT WHAT’S THE NEXT OPPORTUNITY THAT’S GOING TO BE AVAILABLE FOR YOU AND REALLY WORKING WITH EMPLOYERS OUT THERE TO SAY, LET’S NOT FORGET OUR YOUNG PEOPLE OUT THERE.

SO UNFORTUNATELY RIGHT NOW, YOU KNOW, IT’S SORT OF A MIXED BAG, GETTING YOUNG PEOPLE EMPLOYMENT RIGHT NOW, THE EMPLOYMENT THAT’S AVAILABLE IS IN WAREHOUSES AND SUPERMARKETS AND THOSE TYPES OF PLACES THAT NEED ADDITIONAL STAFFING.

AND SO WE’RE ABLE TO GET YOU SOME EMPLOYMENT THERE, BUT WE’RE WORRIED ABOUT WHAT’S THE FUTURE GOING TO BRING FOR EMPLOYMENT?

IN THE LAST ECONOMIC DOWNTURN, OUR YOUTH WERE VERY NEGATIVELY IMPACTED.

THEY COULDN’T GET BASIC ENTRY LEVEL JOBS AT McDONALD’S.

SO WE’RE VERY CONCERNED ABOUT THAT.

WE HAVE OUR EMPLOYMENT SPECIALISTS OUT THERE RIGHT NOW TRYING TO WORK WITH EMPLOYERS THAT, YOU KNOW, AS THE EMPLOYERS TRY TO FIGURE OUT WHAT’S NEXT, BUT HAVING THEM HAVE IN THEIR MIND THAT THESE YOUNG PEOPLE, IT’S REALLY IMPORTANT NOT TO FORGET THEM AS THE ECONOMY TURNS BACK, HOPEFULLY, TO THE POSITIVE.

LAST QUESTION THEN FOR YOU.

FOR ANYBODY WHO’S WATCHING THIS AND LISTENING TO OUR CONVERSATION AND UNDERSTANDS YOU’RE PRIVATELY FUNDED AND SAYS THIS IS A GOOD CAUSE, HOW CAN THEY HELP?

WELL, CERTAINLY THEY CAN GO TO COVENANT HOUSE.ORG AND THERE’S A DONATE BUTTON THERE THEY CAN SEE ALL OF THE WORK THAT WE’RE DOING, IF THEY WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT US.

THAT’S ONE WAY THEY CAN HELP.

IF THEY WANT TO ORGANIZE, WE DO SEVERAL — THROUGHOUT THE YEAR.

WE’VE HAD TO GOING GO TO DOING VIRTUAL SLEEPOUTS, SO THEY CAN ORGANIZE FAMILY AND FRIENDS DO A SLEEPOUT IN THEIR BACKYARD AND RAISE FUNDS THAT WAY.

IF THEY WANT TO GO TO SLEEPOUT AMERICA.ORG, WE HAVE ALL OF THE TOOLKIT AVAILABLE FOR THEM TO LEARN ABOUT YOUTH HOMELESSNESS, BUT ALSO IT’S A GOOD OPPORTUNITY FOR THEM TO RAISE FUNDS FOR HOMELESS YOUTH.

RIGHT.

WELL, AGAIN, IT’S WONDERFUL WORK BEING DONE BY COVENANT HOUSE.

CHALLENGING WORK, CERTAINLY IN THIS CHALLENGING TIME.

WE APPRECIATE YOU SPENDING TIME TALKING WITH US AND GOOD LUCK TO YOU ALL IN THE FUTURE AS YOU MOVE FORWARD.

THANK YOU AGAIN.

WELL THANK YOU SO MUCH.

ONCE AGAIN, NANCY DOWNING, DIRECTOR OF COVENANT HOUSE IN NEW YORK.

YOU BE WELL, SISTER.

TAKE CARE NOW.

YOU TOO.

TAKE CARE.

BYE-BYE.