While most people anticipate gifts, tree trimming, and Christmas carols at holiday time, the young homeless hope simply that a relative or member of the extended family might include them, even temporarily, and break the cycle of shelter life.
For some, the holidays offer moments of short-lived reconciliation. Alice Steigerwald, the deputy director of the non-residential programs at Covenant House, seems to think so. “During Christmas people feel charitable, families feel forgiving and let their kids stay,” she said. “After Christmas we never know how many kids will come.” A police officer at the Port Authority station, who did not give his name, offers a different view on holiday homelessness. “Most kids don’t run away during the holidays because they want to see what presents are under the tree,” he said. Whatever the reason may be, Covenant House works to make the holidays tolerable for the kids who do show up.
Located on 460 West 41st Street, Covenant House in New York City has been serving homeless youth for almost 40 years. Each year, Covenant House boards over 6,000 youth between the ages of 16 to 21. Since the shelter is a crisis center, youth are invited to stay for a total of 30 consecutive days, unless they are approved for an extension (30 to 60 days), or accepted into the transitional housing program, called the Rite of Passage (ROP).
The ROP is an onsite program that equips homeless youth for independent living after leaving the crisis center. The transitional program houses 154 young adults anywhere from 18 months to three years, depending on how well the resident adheres to the program’s in-house policy of completing their education and maintaining employment.
Steigerwald has been working for the non-profit organization for 11 years and is in charge of preparing the shelter for the holiday season. “I plan most of the Christmas events we have here at the Covenant House,” she said, “and make sure this time of the year is special for kids without homes.”
Covenant House begins planning for Christmas almost twelve months in advance, immediately after the New Year. Throughout the year, they solicit various charitable groups and retail companies for donations. This year, Aéropostale, a popular clothing store, held a corporate event and raised money for winter clothes that will be delivered to the shelter this week. Local schools and organizations also donate to the shelter. “Two schools in the Bronx collected over 1,400 pairs of socks for the kids,” Steigerwald said, while another group donated 80 pair of pajamas.
Steigerwald also plans a large potluck on Christmas Eve for the residents of Covenant House. She said, “The day before Christmas all of the staff members will bring in a dish and serve the kids. Most staff will bring their own families, so that residents can feel a part of a family.” This year over 250 people, including residents and staff, will gather around the dinner table and share a home-cooked meal, topped off with a visit from Old St. Nicholas.
One 17-year-old who has been living at Covenant House for less than a month stated, “This is my first time not being with my family for Christmas.” Being thrown out of the house and told never to return is just one of many rejections she has faced this holiday season. After many attempts to contact various family members for a place to stay, Covenant House became her place of refuge. Another 19-year-old who also lives at the shelter said, “I don’t have a family. The people here are closer than what my family has ever been to me.”
With only 108 crisis beds and 154 ROP beds on site, Steigerwald said there is never enough room for those who apply. In the past month, Covenant House has turned away over 100 youth because they do not have enough space to house them. According to the intake reports of last month, Covenant House admitted 22 new residents between the 23rd and the 25th. Though it is difficult to estimate how many homeless youth will come to the shelter for Christmas, Steigerwald thinks the number will be even less than Thanksgiving.
The Port Authority police officer stated that there is no set pattern to youth homelessness. In his six years of working in the homeless and runaway division, he noted that homelessness has always been prevalent in the station, especially among young adults. He said, “If you’re above 18 there is nothing we can do. It’s an open building so you can stay.”
The Port Authority homeless squad often sends youth to Covenant House if they are in need of a place to sleep for the night. The police officer does not predict having to make these arrangements in the next few weeks.
For Covenant House the reason a youth is homeless is not important. “If they look like they are living on the street and like they have been sleeping in subways or have not had a good meal to eat, we take them,” said Steigerwald.
“It’s stressful at times and there is so much to do, but in the end it’s worth it. You can tell they [youth] really appreciate it by the pleases and thank-yous they give,” responded Steigerwald as she organized the new winter coats that were just delivered to her office. During the final days leading up to Christmas, Covenant House will continue to decorate the hallways, stuff stockings and sort countless gifts for the 200 plus youth who will call Covenant House home.