Ricky was 16 when his mother threw him out. She said he cost too much. She made money on her foster kids and if she got rid of him, there'd be room for one more "paying" kid. When Ricky came to us he'd been wandering the streets for almost six months, not knowing where to go. It wasn't until we convinced Ricky that we weren't going to make any money on him that he agreed to stay. It was the first time in a long time anyone did anything for him, expecting nothing in return.
Sometimes I think about the dual meaning of the word "suffer" when I look at the street kids served by Covenant House. We indeed want to "suffer" the children to come to the Lord, to not only "allow" but "encourage" them to do so. But I think, too, of how much, and how many, kids suffer in our modern world. And these are the suffering kids who come to our doors every day asking to come in. They seem to come from everywhere, and they just keep coming.
For us "street kids" are ones who come to us for refuge when whatever they have called home is no longer an option. Some come out of natural families, some come out of foster families, and some come from a long list of "anywheres" that took them in. They often have been "couch surfing" or staying with friends, classmates or neighbors until that option collapsed and they had to seek something more definite. Many are genuine runaways who left intolerable situations that were filled with abuse and rejection. Some are throwaways, or pushouts from situations where they were no longer welcome, often having been told, "You're 16 now—time to go on your own!" And their "own" turns out to be simply impossible.
Allie was only 12 when her father started having sex with her. When she came to us at 15, she was terrified that her father would find her. He told her that if she ever ran away, he'd find her and kill her. If he couldn't have her, nobody could. It took months for Allie to feel safe and comfortable at Covenant House—to stop looking over her shoulder. She thought her life had ended when her mother died. She began to feel hope with us for the first time in years.
There are so many ways to suffer when you are a teenager; so many ways to be afraid, to feel rejected, to wish you were dead. And we hear about all those ways. We hear about domiciles which really do not deserve to be called "home," places filled with conflict, abuse of every kind, sexual, physical, emotional. Places also full of drug and alcohol abuse, places which not only are unsuitable for raising a child, but which are the antithesis of a safe and supportive home.
So our Covenant Houses—and there are now twenty—exist mainly for street kids. Fourteen Covenant Houses are in the United States and six others are in Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. And each is first and foremost, a shelter, a safe place to be when the street is all else that is available. Kids come to our door willingly. We do not take referrals. Our Open Intake policy means we take any kid that comes. Nobody can send us a kid. Admission is always voluntary. We see kids as young as five in Latin America. The average age there is eleven. In the U.S. we see kids as young as ten, but our average age is seventeen. Most of our admissions are teenagers, and any youth up to age 21 is welcome. During the past year we admitted over 25,000 kids. Every year that number grows because the problems sending kids to our door grow. How we would love to stem that tide. But as we look at the culture, we see only a rising influx of kids, because that culture is producing these kids by the thousands.
What's the matter? Why is our culture producing so many unhappy, hurting, homeless and runaway kids? There are lots of things awry in our culture that militate against children, their health and happiness. None is more destructive, however, than the disintegration of the family. Divorce rates remain high, at about 20 divorces per 100 married women. Many kids are lost in the pain and suffering resulting from separation and divorce. The disturbing prediction that "50% of children will live in single parent households by 2010" is offered by someone as knowledgeable as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Single parenthood itself is not at fault. The problem is in the resulting lack of time that most single parents have to care for their children because of the combined pressures of work and home management. The number of cases of child abuse has skyrocketed in the last few years, as have the number of out of wedlock pregnancies and "living together" arrangements without marriage. Numbers are cold and impersonal, but when they are attached to individuals and to their stories, they become deadly predictors of a future of hurt and pain for lots of kids.
Our Covenant Houses are seeing increasing numbers of kids coming out of living situations worsened by the changes in welfare policy. Pressures on poor and marginalized families are increased by decreased income, with the accompanying temptation to send teenagers out on their own before they are ready. The potential for such teens to get involved in drugs or prostitution is disturbing. This is one of the reasons why we are trying hard to prepare teens for work and to help them get job training and jobs.
Vivian was nearly 17 when she came to our door. She was five months pregnant and her mother put her out as soon as she found out about the pregnancy. For several weeks, Vivian stayed with her boyfriend, but frightened by the thought of the responsibility of fatherhood, he disappeared. Vivian was terrified, had had no pre-natal care and had exhausted the hospitality of her friends before somebody told her about Covenant House. A shy, quiet girl, she hesitatingly asked if she could stay with us.
The issue of teen pregnancy is an enormous concern because the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrial world, with over half a million births to teens each year. It appears that we need to expand our efforts as a nation to educate teens, not only to the moral aspects of sexual activity, but also to the social aspects of teen pregnancy with the accompanying impact on both mother and child. The renewed efforts of the NCCB to promote stronger educational programs in this regard are commendable. Our Covenant Houses are seeing increasing numbers of pregnant and mothering teens. We provide good prenatal care, as well as continued care for both mother and child while the mother completes school, gets job training and placement assistance. Our aim is to help them see a future of independence without welfare.
Tony was picked up by a police car and brought to us. He had been sitting on a street corner crying at 1:30 in the morning. He complained that he was out delivering drugs for his mother and that he didn't want to do it anymore. He was just ten years old. The reason his mother made him sell drugs is simple—a ten-year old is a minor and can't be jailed if caught. And it wasn't just the drugs that frightened him. It was the fact that the drug dealers made him carry a gun and showed him how to shoot a cop.
We see every kind of kid. They come from every socio-economic group, but principally from poverty. They are Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, and Asian. Sometimes they come looking strong and healthy, and sometimes they come in sick with both physical and psychological damage. Some have been on the street as long as a year and show the signs of wear and tear accompanying such exposure. A few test positive for AIDS or TB. Many show signs of depression and psychological abuse.
Our ministry to these kids is multi-dimensional. First, they need food and shelter and medical care. But even more, they need the healing ministry of acceptance and unconditional love. Although most are unchurched, they need to be connected to the God who loves them. They need a second chance in so many ways but above all they need a powerful injection of HOPE. We see ourselves as pro-life in a very special kind of way, for without our programs many kids might simply be dead, or continue to live in dehumanizing situations beyond the coping of skills of any kid.
Liz was only 14 when she came to us. She had been used by drug dealers as a "mule." A mule is someone who is forced to swallow bags of drugs and act as a smuggler. Liz had been sold to these dealers by her mother when she was only 12. Her mother needed money to support her drug habit and knew that Liz would be worth a lot of money as a mule or prostitute. When Liz came to us she was so frightened she wouldn't even tell us who she was for fear we would send her back to her mother.
Our mission statement calls us to "absolute respect and unconditional love," and this is our secret weapon. It is sometimes difficult to deliver, but it is the most powerful intervention that exists, especially with kids who have had so little of either. If Jesus walked among us today, these kids would undoubtedly be offered His special care, full of respect and love.
The pastoral care offered to each youth is characterized by a listening, affirming ear that strives to help kids focus on the future and leave the hard past behind. It offers prayer and worship events geared to their level and capacities. Their openness with the pastoral ministers often amazes us and demonstrates the hunger in so many kids' hearts for a God who treasures them and to whom they can pray. Our daily voluntary prayer gatherings in the chapel never cease to touch us and convince us of the importance of this ministry.
So how are all these kids doing? Ricky is living with his father. Tony is in a good foster home and doing well in fifth grade. Liz is gradually getting herself together, goes to high school and is working part time. Allie is living with her grandmother and seems happy. Vivian and her baby boy are still with us and doing well. She is finishing high school and working part time.
We don't always succeed, but we do so often enough to keep us trying and believing that the only way to fail is to stop trying! For those kids who come in but leave again because they are just not ready to turn their lives around or whose trust level is too destroyed to try, we pray and hope someone offers them the help they so much need. And many come back to us when they are ready and motivated for a new beginning.
Years ago the Church focused heavily on the care of orphans. Religious of many orders gave themselves wholeheartedly to this important ministry to children and youth. Over time the focus of ministry to homeless children shifted to foster homes and group residences. In the present, there is clearly a growing number of children and youth who continue to be deprived of the warmth and comfort of a good, safe home and loving family and they end up on the street. These are the focus of our Covenant Houses.
Our Covenant with kids is lived out in the faith that we are called to be for these kids the loving Providence of God. This year as we prepare for the Jubilee and as we celebrate God's Mercy, we thank Him for the privilege of our call to be instruments of that Mercy. We thank Him, too, for the many who assist us, and we invite others to join us in our response to Jesus suffering in His children.
Sr. Mary Rose McGeady has been President and CEO of Covenant House since 1990. She has an M.A. in Clinical Psychology and, in addition to doctoral studies, holds over 23 honorary doctorates from distinguished universities. She has been Provincial of the Daughters of Charity and Associate Director of Brooklyn Catholic Charities prior to becoming president of Covenant House. She is also on the board of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.