Covenant House is a nonprofit transitional living center that can be the saving grace for some young people. Troy Johnson is just one of their success stories.
NEW YORK — 2013 was a dark time for 21-year-old Troy Johnson. After being kicked out of both of his parents’ homes, Johnson spent a year living on the streets of New Jersey.
In February, however, everything changed.
“I actually thought I was going to be homeless again, you know, sleeping on the street, because I had before,” the Newark, N.J, native said in an interview with MintPress News. “I had gone from sleeping in cars, sleeping in basements [and] things like that, so I thought I had to go through that, but then I actually got a call from my girlfriend about [this] program. I never even heard of it and she said, ‘Yeah, I got you a bed at this place, do you want to go?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, anything.’”
Johnson found his footing in the New Jersey chapter of Covenant House, a nonprofit headquartered in New York City that provides transitional housing and crisis counseling for homeless youths.
Founded over 30 years ago in Manhattan’s Lower East Side when six young runaways were given a place to sleep during a snowstorm, it has chapters in 21 U.S. cities, Canada and in Latin America.
“I just went in, not knowing anything [at first],” Johnson said. “I just sat up all night thinking of all the ways I could have not been here and just threw that in the garbage real quick and started off fresh on a clean slate.”
For Johnson, that very sleepless night of Feb. 1 was a chance respite from the dangerous path he was on. Tunnel vision crept in, steering him toward fighting for his self-worth and away from the streets. By morning, he had formulated a plan.
“I had to make a change, I had to make decision, right then and there: this is what you want to be for the rest of your life.”
Within two weeks, he landed a job with the Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., as a grill concessions manager and as an information technology specialist working on the micro system.
Sitting at a small cafeteria table of the New York house at a March 21 fundraiser, Johnson remarked that he was “nobody special.” But it was apparent that many of his 40 or so New Jersey housemates saw him as a big brother. As he told his story, the group nodded in agreement, and one girl repeatedly got up from the table to tell people involved in conversations across the room to be quiet.
One of the lucky ones
Johnson is respected, but he realizes his journey would have been different if he had not been introduced to Covenant House. He knows he is one of the lucky ones.
At the Young Professional Sleep Out, an event where 200 local fundraisers and staff slept under the lights of 10th Avenue — and raised more than $255,000 — alongside the house in Midtown Manhattan, the night was meant to shine awareness on the plights of homeless youth.
Initially wary of the event, Johnson’s concerns waned within moments of his arrival. He fed off the energy and moved around the room with ease, telling his story.
Wearing a backward patchwork baseball cap and carrying an oversized backpack, from a distance, Johnson looked like an average 21-year-old. There was an intensity in his eyes and voice, however, that made him seem older.
Before he was homeless, Johnson had spent time with the Army, working in information technology overseas. He returned last year and got caught up in the wrong crowds and the shuffle of drugs. He thought he was happy in this bubble, but he was really no longer himself.
“After a while, I was just that guy following around that crowd,” he said.
With no stable income and a daughter to provide for, Johnson lived with his dad, then his mom. They gave him time to get it together, but “like any other parent,” Johnson said, he eventually wore down their patience and was thrown out of both houses.
Between beds, he slept in public housing basements in Sayreville, N.J., known as Lakeview, as well as in various unlocked cars in those parking lots.
“I was doing all that because of the lack of attention I was getting at home and I’m just glad now that I’m in the Covenant House. It made me realize what type of person I was becoming and it helped me stop,” he said. “For lack of better words, it slapped you in the face with reality — not to take advantage of what you have and take heed and use it.”
A hidden population
“Youth homelessness may result from multiple and overlapping factors,” Mark Zustovich, chief public information officer for the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), told MintPress.
These factors include the scarcity of affordable housing, poverty, child abuse and neglect, Zustovich said, adding, “DYCD encourages programs to address family issues and strengthen family connectedness as an integral component of their efforts to address the needs of the homeless youth they serve.”
A population largely invisible, it remains hard to pinpoint homeless youth. Data on this group remain inconsistent and figures are often undercounted, particularly because many young people are reluctant to identify as homeless in order to fit in with peers, according to the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness.
In New York City, “estimates vary as to how many runaway and homeless youth” exist, Zustovich said. For DYCD-funded providers in 2013, he noted that 1,478 young people were placed in DYCD-funded Crisis Shelters, 332 were placed in Transitional Independent Living facilities and 10,754 were served at borough-based Drop-In Centers — and those figures include repeat visitors.
Meanwhile, sociologists point to a larger disconnect between shelters and social services for homeless youth. Homelessness is expanding outside the traditional context to include versions such as couch surfing, which also makes it difficult to classify such individuals.
Nearly one-quarter, or 138,149, of homeless Americans are children under the age of 18, while 10 percent, or 61,541, are between the ages of 18 and 24, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.
Most of HUD’s figures come from the “point-in-time count,” a HUD-mandated initiative to count both the sheltered and unsheltered populations of homeless families and individuals in communities across the country on one night at the end of January. Often disputed for not showing the full picture, it provides an overview of homelessness on a “given night” in order to help determine a blueprint for funding and need on local and national scales, according to HUD.
Building trust, accepting help
For those trying to help homeless youth, the focus is on bridging the gap and overcoming stigmas.
“We go into most areas where most people won’t go into, whether it’s an abandoned building or housing projects,” said Marcel Quinones, New Jersey Covenant House outreach manager. “Whatever area it may be, we go and look for the young people and see how we can help them and basically bring our services to them.”
In 2013, the New Jersey branch of Covenant House helped 3,491 young people in the Newark and Atlantic City areas. Offering a range of services tailored for individuals — such as health care and educational, vocational, clinical and legal services — each person gets an assessment in those areas, then a case review process is conducted to determine the next step. During the process, the nonprofit emphasizes the participation of the individual in deciding their own direction, Quinones said.
“But the biggest thing out of everything is the love and support,” Quinones said. “It’s heartbreaking to see what the kids go through and just sometimes [you think], ‘How can someone do this… how can someone take advantage of you?’”
He explained that obtaining and then building their trust is critical in that first encounter. But to reach that level, the door has to open. The door can be opened with a sandwich or a winter coat, according to Quinones, who was also homeless when he was young and understands the street mentality and how important it is to connect with youth.
“You’re dealing with young people that are broken,” he said. “So when they come in, I’m pretty much sure of a lot of what we say, they already heard, but nobody followed through on them, so it’s hard for them to accept that we’re really trying to help them… It’s letting them know that they are somebody.”
Accepting encouragement from the staff can be a challenge for some young people who have little or no history of support. The individuals that do leave the shelter may find it’s all too much and resist any guidance or set boundaries. But some do manage to come back after realizing how much better life is for them in the shelter, Quinones said.
For the impact to truly stick, change has to come from within, Quinones stressed, pointing out that the individual has to be willing to want to make it work. But once the transition takes place, “you start seeing the smiling on their face, the happiness that comes with it and they’re inspired.”
Stays at the Covenant House usually range from one night to several months. Some stay indefinitely because it’s the only sense of normalcy they have ever felt, explained Quinones.
Johnson joked that he will be with the house “until I’m six feet under.” Starting with shoes and then moving to resume and interview help, it has given him the basic tools and structure that he was lacking. He would have never acquired these tools on the streets, and it was up to Johnson to actually use them once he was inside the Covenant House.
Since his first night there, on Feb. 1, he hasn’t been the same.
“I feel comfortable,” Johnson said. “I feel at home. I feel like I can just come back and talk to these people. I can trust them. That comes with them. How many places can you go and just talk to 40 different people about the same thing with the whole world not knowing, not many places can do that. I might have lost my home with my parents, but I gained a bigger one here.”
Unlike many young people that walk in, Johnson came determined, really wanting it, Quinones said.
“A lot of our young people want it, but don’t know how to go out and achieve it,” Quinones said. “A lot of young people that come in are not ready yet. There has to be some bumps on the road before they are really able to move forward.”
Johnson said he no longer harbors anger or resentment for his parents. That was something that changed in him on that first night he spent at Covenant House. He remarked that he loves them, but sadly added that contact with them remains distant.
“They’re not so bad,” Johnson said. “We all make mistakes. I just want to be able to go over their house and see them smile, eat a home-cooked meal… I can go back home and leave and say ‘I’m going back home.’”