Marquis, a newly minted 18-year-old, had a flash of uncertainty in his eyes when he arrived at Covenant House Texas after the July Fourth weekend.
He spent the last few years in foster care, but aged out in July. This day, he woke up at his aunt’s house—his final morning of a holiday visit. After three beef breakfast burritos and an orange juice at Taco Cabana, his aunt delivered Marquis to his uncle, who brought him to Covenant House in Houston. The teen arrived with only a few bags of clothes.
He would have shelter for the night. Maybe longer.
His foster care advocate hoped Covenant House could offer him a new beginning. Marquis, who didn’t want his last name published, wasn’t so sure.
“I was not ready to come here,” said Marquis, who had to place his belongings in a “hot box” upon arrival to zap potential bed bugs. Standard procedure.
Covenant House Texas, the largest youth emergency shelter in Harris County, serves young adults ages 18 to 24 in immediate need of safety, sanctuary and support services. The campus is tucked into a city block in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood.
A daily lottery determines who will sleep in the shelter’s 20 emergency beds each night. Safe Haven, a short-term residential program, has a two-month waiting list, while Rites of Passage, a longer-term transitional living dormitory with two people to each room, is at capacity.
More beds are desperately needed. The campus needs additional safe spaces for all the young people it serves, including teens who have survived trafficking and growing numbers of LGBTQ homeless youth.
The organization has launched a capital campaign—Building for Life, Homelessness to Hope—that aims to raise about $25 million over the next three to five years, Executive Director Leslie Bourne said.
In July, Covenant House Texas purchased an office building across the street, on Lovett Boulevard. The structure will be a key component of a campus reconstruction and expansion project.
Limited space leads to soul-crushing choices. After the 20 emergency beds per night are assigned, those who don’t get shelter can access a bus pass to search elsewhere for overnight housing.
To bring attention to this daily crisis, Texas Medical Center President and CEO William “Bill” McKeon will oversee Covenant House Texas’ largest annual fundraiser on Nov. 21. As honorary chair of the 2019 Sleep Out: Executive Edition, McKeon hopes to raise $1 million by seeking the commitment of Houston business leaders—many of whom will spend the night outside to more closely connect with the reality of homelessness.
“We’re here to draw awareness to something we drive by every day and don’t see,” McKeon said during a spring luncheon with young adults on campus, noting that youth aren’t top-of-mind for many people who think about or encounter the homeless.
To get involved or to donate, visit covenanthousetx.org or call 713-630-5670.
Covenant House Texas is part of a New York City-based international nonprofit with three dozen locations in North and Central America that serve homeless and trafficked youth.
The organization delivers trauma-informed care—a framework for services that helps individuals gain power and control over their lives as they work toward employment, education and self-sufficiency, said Victor Hay, director of program and community services at Covenant House Texas.
The youth engagement center on the Houston campus bustles with activity on a recent afternoon. In the laundry room, washers agitate and dryers tumble. A television blares just beyond the lockers and youth speak with caseworkers in small offices nearby.
A young woman naps while her toddler snoozes in a stroller. Others hang out and literally chill out, taking a break from the 90-degree heat outside.
The center is the initial entry point for services. Young adults seeking housing or access to health care at the on-site Baylor Teen Health Clinic drop by. Showers, meals and laundry facilities are available.
Many of the residential youth are off campus in the afternoons working, attending school, looking for jobs or securing identification cards before the 7 p.m. curfew.
On this particular afternoon, the center is a respite for Xavior, who said he was homeless in New Orleans before landing in Houston at Covenant House in May. Tall and talkative, the 23-year-old said he’s ready to build a stable life. He was waiting for a callback about a job at a popular Texas hamburger restaurant.
“My plan now is to get housing, get on my feet and to start fresh,” Xavior said. “I would love for Covenant House to have the funds they need to fit more people so that more people can stay and
not sleep outside.”
Staff members offer compassion and encouragement to the young people they encounter.
“Hang in there,” chief development officer Felicia Broussard said as she ended her chat with Xavior. “The longer you are here, the more you will see a difference.”
Gabby, a young woman who has spent about six months in Rites of Passage, said her living circumstances fell apart when a stepfather evicted her and other members of her family. The 21-year-old beamed while sharing that she’d been hired as a cashier and barista at a local bakery after spending time working with outreach.
The aspiring writer plans to work full time, start college and pen self-help books.
Xavior and Gabby have made it inside, but others have not.
Outreach prevention specialist Michael Blockson provides for those without a home base. Much of his time is spent driving around in a van pulling a trailer stocked with water, sandwiches and supplies, such as socks.
“I educate the street community about the services here at Covenant House,” he said.
His team also distributes hygiene packages that contain toothpaste, toothbrushes, mouthwash, floss and deodorant.
“They’ll use the restrooms in the stores to wash up,” Blockson said. “We are consistent about going out every day. The kids recognize us and when they’re ready to make a change, we’re here.”
In addition to increasing capacity at Covenant House, additional resources through the capital campaign will help the organization expand services, including wireless internet connectivity.
“We took a survey of our youth and that was the No. 1 thing,” Hay said. “We’re just looking at the cost and seeing how we can do it.”
This will be helpful to newcomers like Marquis, whose next steps were to acquire a government ID and visit the vocational educational department to discuss his GED.
“Whatever he’s lacking in, they will work on that so that he can take the test,” Hay said. “We will pay for the test.”
Marquis said he wants to earn his diploma, then learn graphic design or engineering to create architectural images or video games.
“I like to draw,” he said. “I draw on computers. I draw on my phone. I draw in real life.”
He’s grateful for Covenant House Texas, but gets a vibe that the youth engagement center environment might be too loud and chaotic for him.
A few hours after he arrived, he seemed more relaxed, but spoke hesitantly about the future. “Tomorrow? I don’t know,” Marquis said. “I may not get a bed.”
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