Covenant House has a unique way of hosting a fundraiser—no gala dinners and no TV donation marathons. Instead, they ask C-suite executives, entrepreneurs, and business owners to put their money where their bodies are—on the cold asphalt in 27 cities around the country where they will spend one night sleeping on the street, just as millions of youth do every night.
Bill Bedrossian is the executive director of Covenant House California. With their two locations in Oakland and Los Angeles, Covenant House is giving homeless youth a safe place to live while raising money and awareness for the growing epidemic of homelessness.
One of the ways that Covenant House raises money and awareness is through an annual Sleep Out. “We ask some high-profile executives from each city to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to sleep out on the streets for a night so that homeless youth won’t have to,’” says Bedrossian. “We set up a place for them to sleep outside our site here in Hollywood, and they sleep on cardboard just like a homeless youth has to… We give them a sleeping bag and that’s about it.”
Before the executives are sent out into the night, they get a tour of the Covenant House facilities, participate in group discussions, and hear testimonials from some of the kids. The families and friends of the participating executives are also invited for this part of the program. “And then at about 10:30 or 11pm at night, we make our way out to the sleeping area and the youth will come out and give us tips on how to manage our cardboard in a way that is going to be as comfortable as possible, or tell them what to do if it rains,” says Bedrossian. “It’s a pretty raw experience out there when the kids are sharing about what they’ve really experienced on the street.”
These businessmen and women aren’t the only ones Sleeping Out, however; Bedrossian is participating this year as well. “I’m feeling very blessed today that tonight I will be Sleeping Out and it will only be a low of 52 (degrees),” he says. That’s far from the case in most of the 20 Covenant House sites that participate in Sleep Outs. “Our biggest site is in New York where there are about 250 sleepers,” he says. While his Hollywood homebase typically only has a small fraction of that number, about 30-40 participants, “It is just a great opportunity for our homeless youth to feel like people really care about them and are willing to do more than just write a check,” Bedrossian says. “It is proving to be a very transformative experience for the executives to sleep out.”
In addition to sleeping on the streets for a night, every executive who participates has a goal to raise $5,000 through their social network. Some of them independently raise their goals to $10,000 or even over $20,000, says Bedrossian. Covenant House has raised over five million dollars this year alone to help combat homelessness through their Sleep Out program.
All told, Covenant House has 27 locations across the Americas. From Vancouver to Toronto to New York, St. Louis, Florida, Alaska, and all the way down to Honduras and Mexico City as well, Covenant House is helping kids stay off the streets and giving them a chance to make something of their lives.
Bedrossian shared a story of one such kid who told him he had already been homeless in five different states by the time he landed on Covenant House California’s doorstep. He was “an aspiring musician who is actually incredibly talented,” Bedrossian says. “He just happened to be here when a producer friend of mine was touring the facility with me. They met each other, the producer listened to his music and said, ‘This kid is more talented than you even know.’ He connected him with some big time producers in LA and he is just running with it now and it looks like his career is going to take off.” While not all Covenant House stories have quite a happy ending as this, Bedrossian says he sees success stories every day.
The kids that come through his door are primarily in the 18 to 24 range. Kids, Bedrossian says, who “are ageing out (of foster homes) at the age of 18 and are expected to be independent on their own, but they don’t have the skills to make it out there.” For these kids, there are two basic types of services provided by Covenant House: a crisis shelter where they can stay for up to thirty days and a residential program where they can stay for up to two years.
It is in the residential program, or the “rites of passage program” as Bedrossian calls it, where he and his staff “really work a lot on job preparation, educational achievement, and a variety of other services that get them to a place where they can be independent,” says Bedrossian. That includes “mental health services, tutoring, mentorship, and whatever they need to achieve their goals.”
Bedrossian says there is also an apartment program for kids who want to gain independence a little more quickly. Covenant House places them in one of their apartment sites which are located within a mile of the main building in Hollywood. Here, they can live on their own while still receiving some case management and assistance whenever they need it.
Bedrossian knows first hand the impact that a supportive and caring environment can have on the lives of those in need. “I have eight adopted brothers and sisters,” he says. This childhood helped him see “how having remarkable people who care about you can change your life.” However, he realized that not all kids are as fortunate as his siblings. “I became really passionate about that gap with kids coming out of the foster care system without any preparation and no safety blanket to fall into if things go wrong.”
What Bedrossian hopes that people take away more than anything from Covenant House’s outreach is an understanding that these kids are not the dregs of society or drug addicts who have put themselves in the position they’re in. Most of the time, Bedrossian says, they are kids who have simply lived without supportive parents their whole lives, have never known what it’s like to be cared for and loved, and have been the victims of a system that expects disadvantaged youth to be ready for the real world at 18 when they’ve never had the opportunity to develop necessary skills for success. Covenant House is helping to provide just that.
To learn more about Covenant House California, or to see how you can get involved, visit their website at http://covenanthousecalifornia.org/.
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