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Cover story

House an oasis for the nearly hopeless

NCR Staff
New York

Last year Covenant Houses served 44,000 children, said international chairman Denis Coleman. And it looks like that number will increase this year. "We're unfortunately doing very well," he said.

Coleman began as a Covenant House volunteer more than a decade ago, became a mentor, then a board member and finally chairman. His assessment means that if Covenant House is used as a barometer for society's ills, its services are going to be more in demand than ever.

"This is what we think is going to happen with welfare reform," said Sr. Mary Rose McGeady, Covenant House president. "A poor family has teenagers, kids 16, 17, 18 years old. They lose their welfare benefits. There's nobody working that's going to make as much money as they got from welfare.

"So they tell these teenagers, Go on your own now. And we know," said McGeady, "that these kids are not going to make it. They're going to end up on the street and they're going to be at our doorstep. So we're very afraid that business is good enough now and it's going to get better. We're going to see more and more kids."

There are 17 Covenant House sites in New York, Anchorage, Hollywood, Toronto, Orlando, New Orleans, Newark, Atlantic City, Houston, Washington, D.C., Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Detroit is next in the United States, and maybe Managua, Nicaragua, in Central America.

Covenant House vans trundle around carrying "sandwiches, hot chocolate, clothing, outreach counselor and hope," says the annual report. In New York alone more than 6,000 young people went through the crisis shelters -- almost one an hour, day and night, walked into one of the Manhattan centers at West 41st and West 17th Streets

Once inside they are, first, safe, and then they have their immediate needs met -- shelter, clean clothes, a shower, hot food, warm bed, medical care, access to a phone in a quiet area to call family, someone to cry with, someone to listen, someone to care.

During the average one- to three-week stay, everything is possible -- from legal services and pastoral counseling to enrollment in the Rights of Passage program for older teens.

ROP allows them to stay in a Covenant House residence for up to 18 months as they hold a job, improve their educational and job skills and prepare for the big step into independent living.

"If a kid is going to be with us one or two days," said McGeady, "we tell them, 'Go get a job.' We say, 'We'll tell you exactly where to go -- Burger King on 42nd Street. Make out an application and by tomorrow night you'll be working.' " They would be working 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., only 19 hours a week, so there are no benefits, and they would not make enough to live independently.

So why would they do it?

"One kid the other day told me he could make $500 a day selling drugs and couldn't make $500 a week at McDonald's," said McGeady. "So I said to him, 'Well, why are you at Covenant House?' "

And he replied that he was sick and tired of always looking over his shoulder.

Through ROP "the kids" -- more than half of them are not high school graduates -- are plugged into skills training that have a job at the end: culinary arts, nurses aide and teachers aide programs, computer, security and maintenance jobs. Building maintenance in New York pays $11 an hour. If a young man can save up $2,000 -- three months' rent -- Covenant House will try to find him one of the Bronx apartments it knows about at a price he can afford.

"You should see them," said McGeady with a combination of pride and humor, "their pay in $1 bills bulging in their back pocket. But you know, 12 months after they leave here, 85 percent of them still have the same job and are living in the same place."

McGeady is not always in the same place. She was off to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua the week after the NCR interview. Telling the same story about "the kids" and drumming up support for more residences.

Her four California nephews say their mother, Catherine Pendleton, "loves to see her coming. She's a born storyteller." And writer. The stories quoted in the accompanying article are gathered in a small Covenant House volume, Are You Out There, God? "The kids" she writes about have become her own.

But then, as her friend Sr. Mary Patricia Finneran would say, that's been true for the past 40 years -- since Mary Rose first put her arms around the destitute kids in Boston and the disturbed ones in Rhinebeck, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 1997