That number is growing—not just at CHPA, but at homeless youth shelters around the country.
Many factors drive young people to homelessness, such as poverty, an unstable family life, drug abuse or domestic violence. Add the COVID-19 pandemic and its socioeconomic effects into the equation, and the NCSL estimates that 4.2 million young people become homeless every year.
But the situation doesn’t have to be hopeless. Thanks in part to donations through Walgreens customers to Comic Relief US through Red Nose Day, nonprofit organizations like CHPA can offer refuge and coaching in essential life skills to young people in need. Kenny speaks with Walgreens Stories to share how the support he received through CHPA helped him develop into the person he is today.
More than a shelter
When Kenny reflects on his first day at CHPA, he admits he had a poor impression of homeless shelters and assumed it would be at best an unpleasant experience, and at worst, dangerous. Instead, he was met with immediate warmth and comfort.
“When I walked in, the first thing they asked me was if I’ve eaten and if I was OK,” he says. “They brought me some food, so I thought, this place is alright. I didn’t know if I’d stay there, but it was hard not to because everybody was so friendly. It was comfortable, and I felt like I had a support system. And from day one they started to teach me how to deal with different situations and live the life of an adult.”
This is what Covenant House does—attend to basic human needs, and then over time, provide one-on-one support that addresses a range of issues: medical care, mental health counseling, vocational education and much more, 24 hours a day. As residents develop their life skills, they can transition from the shelter into a transitional living program called Rights of Passage (ROP), where they learn financial literacy, how to gain and hold a job, and work toward securing stable housing.
After 18 months, Kenny moved into ROP housing and successfully completed the program. Steady coaching from a case manager helped him to understand the tenants of holding down a job, building credit and paying bills on time.
“In Covenant House, they would wake us up in the morning and we had our meals cooked for us and structured eating time. In ROP, we had to get ourselves up and cook our own food. All the structure is on you,” says Kenny. “I learned how to make sure to get up on time for work, budget for transportation and do my laundry. ROP got you off your feet and helped you stay on your feet.”
A growing mental health crisis rears its head
Not only did COVID-19 cause a spike in youth homelessness, but it brought the mental health crisis to a new level. In December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy went so far as to issue an advisory on the growing youth mental health crisis. His report states that “even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression and thoughts of suicide—and rates have increased over the past decade…it further altered their experiences at home, school and in the community, and the effect on their mental health has been devastating.”
Jen Weikert, executive director of CHPA, notes that CHPA saw an increase in the number of new young people seeking mental health support in the past year. Around 40-50% of people would indicate mental health issues on the center’s intake forms before COVID-19, but now, the number has grown to 75-80%. As mental health continues to be addressed as a component of overall health, counseling and other assistance like yoga classes and spiritual services have become integral to CHPA’s offerings.
About 40% of CHPA’s operating budget is funded by donors. Weikert estimates that as the effects of COVID-19 continue to reverberate throughout society, more and more young people like Kenny will need their services. As a result, donations raised from Walgreens and Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day campaign are more crucial than ever.
“As a nonprofit that’s serving a growing number of young people whose needs are getting more complex, donations make all the difference,” says Weikert. “It means that we can continue to offer free services. It means that we can continue to have our doors open 24/7. It means that if our funding landscape changes, Red Nose Day funds are there to rely on. Donations provide the backbone of our ability to deliver these vitally needed services. And I love that it's also a way for people to show that they care about our mission.”
Making an impact on the future
Today, Kenny is 25 years old. He is the proud owner of his own car (after learning about the ins and outs of insurance, thanks to his case manager), and works at a home improvement store. He’s researching joining a carpenter’s union, and most recently picked up an extra gig registering voters for Pennsylvania’s midterm elections. He even makes time to drop by CHPA to shovel the sidewalks or just say hello to the people he now calls family.
“My time at Covenant House made me into the person I am today because now I’m doing outreach all the time,” reflects Kenny. “I keep water in my car in case I’m driving around and see someone who needs it. I know what it’s like to fall and not have someone there to pick you up, so I want to be the person there to pick other people up. I want to give back to my community. I might even want to start my own nonprofit one day.”
Kenny is technically at the point of “aftercare,” when those who have transitioned out of ROP are still always welcome if, say, they experience a setback living independently or simply want to celebrate achieving a milestone. This is what makes Weikert beam with pride—seeing young people thrive on their own as adults.
“We are on the front lines of ensuring that the cycle of homelessness in a place like Philadelphia can be disrupted so that young people are not defined by being homeless,” says Weikert. “They can move on to become independent adults who become part of our communities and that period of homelessness is just a moment in time.”