Covenant House Michigan responds to homeless youth in need during COVID-19

Ashley Zlatopolsky
Special to The Detroit News
View Comments

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted Michigan’s homeless, runaway and at-risk community, especially its youth.

Since the pandemic first hit the state in March, Covenant House Michigan, a faith-based nonprofit organization that provides a home for homeless youth ages 18-24, has pivoted how they approach sheltering, employment programs and mentorship.

“We all rely on our friends and family throughout the pandemic for reassurance and encouragement,” says Gerry Piro, executive director of Covenant House Michigan. “These young people have no one to rely on, they do not have families. They have to rely on their own wits and try and figure out what is going on.”

When at-risk youth come to Covenant House, he says, they get the guidance they need. At its Detroit shelter, where 30 youth are now housed to adhere to social distancing guidelines, staff are a key source of information and act as parental figures. Youth turn to staff for guidance on how to wear masks and keep a six-foot distance from other residents and employees. “We encourage and help them to go forward,” Piro says.

Emotional impact on Michigan’s homeless youth

At the beginning of the pandemic, Covenant House began turning off TVs as youth became anxious watching the crisis develop.

With some residents also dealing with mental illness along with stress over the current climate, Piro, 67, says working toward mental wellness is more important than ever. Staff distracts residents with card games, dance contests and other activities to create an environment that feels natural amid the chaos.

“That’s one of the more difficult things when you try to deal with emotions,” Piro says.

One of the more devastating emotional and also financial blows to the residents supported by Covenant House was when Michiganians across numerous industries lost their jobs as businesses closed due to stay-home orders during the earlier months of the pandemic.

“We had a number of young people that were working,” Piro explains, “and I believe every one of them lost their job.”

Covenant House Michigan Executive Director Gerald J. Piro, left, talk with 60-day resident Paul Campbell, 21, of Detroit, at Covenant House Michigan, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020.

The jobs “gave them a place to go,” he says, “they gave them a purpose. It allowed for them to begin saving money to prepare to go out to their own living situation.”

Residents then faced extraordinary challenges navigating Michigan’s unemployment system. It posed increased difficulty for securing benefits because not having a permanent address on file made it next to impossible to catch up with mail, apply for Social Security cards or obtain government IDs, on top of limited transportation options and closed Secretary of State offices.

“Our young people move around a lot because they’ve gone from shelter to shelter,” Piro says. “Their permanent address doesn’t change as quickly as they do. A lot of them will have missed a stimulus check, and that whole financial picture was turned upside down for them.”

Many residents had no choice but to go back to square one in their job search. “Eventually, a lot of them did get through,” Piro continues, “but they lost a lot, too.”

Reconfiguring community outreach and sheltering

Also impacted by COVID-19 was Covenant House’s street outreach program. Its mobile unit, which delivers clothes, food and other needs to homeless youth communities, was unable to operate in the earlier months of the pandemic.

“It’s the heart of what we do,” Piro says. “We have a team of four people that go out every day, twice a day to areas where young people tend to congregate, and make sure they’re safe and encourage them to come into the shelter.”

When social interaction became too dangerous, the program came to a halt and only recently picked back up last month as Michigan’s COVID-19 cases continued to remain steady.

“It left a lot of young people on the street without any protection, without any help,” Piro says, “and that’s something we were very anxious about.”

The organization also reconfigured their shelter. Bedrooms originally housing three residents were lowered to two, and beds were moved around so residents were sleeping head-to-toe, rather than side-by-side. Covenant House’s five-acre Detroit campus became a safe zone for socially-distanced activities like barbecues and games. Residents, Piro explains, “are adjusting really well and taking it in stride.”

A new way of operating moving forward

If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, Piro says residents are “learning a lot about themselves, about their abilities to take charge of their life.” At the shelter they receive three hot meals a day, emotional and employment support, and are given the tools they need to eventually become independent.

“Being at Covenant House taught me how to live on my own,” 21-year-old resident Paul Campbell says. The Detroit native was raised by a single mother and came to Covenant House to find support to get on a new path in life. Before coming to the shelter, he had “no real goals or vision,” he explains, and that the organization “was a huge stepping stone” for him. Now, he works at Cadillac Plating Plant in Warren.

Resident Alexis Cross, 22, of Detroit, who recently became homeless, inputs her work schedule into the computer at Covenant House Michigan, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. Homeless individuals can live at the shelter for up to 90 days.

Covenant House has recently beefed up its workforce development program to more intensively prepare youth to land and keep a job where they can grow a lifelong career. Many youth are considering their futures as they create personal and professional roadmaps.

“I came to Covenant House to prove to myself that I can make my life better,” says 20-year-old resident Alexis Simpson, who has two children and a third on the way. The organization, she explains, is providing her with resources to make her and her kids “successful in the future” and to become “better citizens of Detroit.”

The nonprofit has also initiated a drug addiction program to support residents in managing and overcoming addictions. They’re continuing to work closely with the City of Detroit and health organizations in developing best practices for future operations.

As a 90% privately-funded organization, Covenant House Michigan, which has served 60,000 youth since its inception in 1997, will pivot their traditional fundraising programs to meet the needs of today’s climate. Their annual Sleep Out, which asks business leaders to sleep outside at the campus to raise awareness for at-risk youth, will still take place this November, but on participants’ own properties.

In navigating an ever-changing world that uniquely impacts youth in need, Piro says the organization must stay true to its goal. “That’s what the mission is all about, saving these young people and getting them ready to be out on their own. That’s what we have to do.”

View Comments