Covenant House event aims to raise money and awareness of homeless youths’ plight

Ryan landed at the front door of Covenant House New Orleans in May after his father kicked him out of their home in Hoover, Ala.

His mother died when he was 8, and his father ordered Ryan out of the house after a divorce caused him to begin abusing alcohol.

Ryan was taken in by a friend in Covington but eventually left in search of independence.

At Covenant House, Ryan found food, shelter and a temporary job at Cafe Reconcile.

Now a certified chef at age 20, Ryan has a job at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and is hoping to enroll in college and major in social work.

“If it wasn’t for Covenant House, I’d probably be out on the street or in jail right now,” said Ryan, who asked that his full name not be used.

Ryan and other young people who live at Covenant House will tell their stories to some of New Orleans’ most prominent residents Thursday night at the nonprofit organization’s second annual Sleep Out, an event to raise both money and awareness for the area’s homeless youth.

The participants then will be given a piece of cardboard and sleeping bag and ordered outside, where they will spend the night sleeping on the street.

Covenant House New Orleans provides food, shelter, clothing, medical attention and other services for homeless, runaway and at-risk youths under age 22.

Most of the young people who end up at Covenant House are between 17 and 22, Executive Director James Kelly said.

They arrive at the Rampart Street building for a number of reasons, often because they have been put out of their homes because of circumstances beyond their control, he said.

The Sleep Out is intended, in part, to demonstrate what it’s like to be a homeless young person in New Orleans, Kelly said.

“It’s experiential learning,” he said. “We want to send them out into the community with a greater awareness of who these kids are and why they are on the street. This is all about raising awareness.”

Among this year’s participants are several judges, business executives and public officials, including City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, state Rep. Walter Leger III and his father, lawyer Walter Leger Jr., Solomon Group CEO Gary Solomon Jr., New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. President Mark Romig and Whitney Bank President Joseph Exnicios.

The event will begin with a tour of the Covenant House facility and a presentation on its local efforts.

Participants then will break into small groups to talk with those receiving Covenant House services about what it is like to live on the streets and what brought them to the center. At 11 p.m., the “sleepers” will be sent outside.

“The experience, in just a very small way, is similar to what the kids go through,” said Romig, who participated in last year’s event as well.

“But they don’t have the comforts that we experience, like hot coffee when they get up in the morning and the friendship or camaraderie of people going through the same thing.”

Forty-three people participated in last year’s inaugural event. This year, that number has doubled to 86, Kelly said.

Last year’s participants were able to fit in Covenant House’s gated courtyard. This year, they are expected to spill out onto North Rampart Street.

Apart from being a learning experience, the Sleep Out is a fundraiser to help meet the growing demand for Covenant House services, which has increased sharply over the past few years, Kelly said.

The center has an open-door policy and admits anyone who requests help.

As a result, other agencies often refer homeless and at-risk youth to the facility.

On Tuesday, the center housed 141 children and young adults, up from the 84 who stayed there on the same night a year ago.

Participants each pay or raise at least $500 to join the Sleep Out, Kelly said. The campaign had raised $180,000 by Wednesday afternoon, on its way to a goal of $200,000.