By Aaron Blevins, 11/21/2012
Inaugural ‘Sleep Out’ illustrates struggles of living on the streets
It was wet, cold and dark — a fitting night for Covenant House California officials and supporters to hold the inaugural “Sleep Out”, in which “sleepers” opted to forgo their bedrooms and slept in the Covenant House parking lot for a night.
The event, which was held internationally on Nov. 15, sought to raise awareness of the plight of homeless youth and raise money for Covenant House services, which are offered to homeless people ages 18 to 21.
“We will get a better sense of what the kids are going through, but I think the important thing is we’re bearing witness,” Covenant House board member Bill Brodhead said. “We’re bearing witness to the big problem. We’re trying to raise awareness of the problem.”
The “Sleep Out” raised more than $120,000 for the local organization, which has offices in Hollywood and Oakland. Internationally, the event brought in approximately $2.5 million. Thirty sleepers participated in the local “Sleep Out”, and Brodhead was among them.
“It was uncomfortable, but well worth it — a good experience,” he said. “It’s not as relaxing as sleeping in a nice, warm, soft, dry bed. I didn’t have a lot of energy the next day.”
However, the Hollywood sleepers did not have to combat common threats to the homeless, such as thievery and bodily harm. They did, though, encounter some wet conditions and a raccoon or two.
“It gave us a taste, I think, of what the young people have to go through, but not the full experience,” Brodhead said. “I think it’ll make things more concrete. When we’re on the board, we can get pretty abstract. …But it’s important for us to remember that we’re dealing with the lives of young people, homeless people, every single day.”
Covenant House has been in Hollywood for the last 24 years, executive director George Lozano said. The facility offers a variety of services, including job training, substance abuse training and mental health services.
A typical day for residents calls for chores, meals, meetings with case managers and the pursuit of their short- and long-term goals. If they’re not in school or working, they are required to use the facility’s career center to look for jobs and educational services.
“It’s not just three meals and a cot,” Lozano said. “We developed a program that really provides services that will turn a youth’s life around — and not just small pieces, their entire life.”
The facility is at capacity every night, housing 96 homeless young people, he said. Although some residents sleep on mats on the floor, it’s a safe environment with available services, Lozano said.
“In the county of Los Angeles, there are anywhere between eight thousand and ten thousand kids on the streets that are homeless,” he added. “It’s just so sad, because even if we wanted to help them, we couldn’t help them.”
Lozano said approximately 50 percent of the youth at Covenant House have been in the foster care system. After turning 18 years old, many are homeless within six to 10 months after leaving the system, he said.
“They’re no longer eligible for foster care, and they can’t earn a living yet,” Brodhead said. “And they’re just on the streets.”
Brodhead said homeless youth are “prey for pimps,” and though the recovery is difficult, Covenant House tries to rescue them and help them work through that situation. Lozano referred to it as “survival sex.”
“They’ll do what they have to do to make it through the next day,” he added.
Lozano said it’s important to reach homeless youth early, as many homeless adults become set in their ways. Young people, though, are quite resilient and open to change.
“They can be formed, they can be helped and they can take advantage of the services that we offer,” Lozano added. “We can literally help these kids become real successes.”
Brodhead said “a large majority” of the youth at Covenant House use the opportunity to readjust their lives. Otherwise, their future destination is pretty clear: life on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.
“We try to give each child a sense that they’re important, that they’re worthy of respect,” Brodhead said. “They’re not throwaways. Everybody should have a chance. Everybody should have an opportunity. Boy, when it works, is it satisfying.”
Kayshon Moody has been making the best of his time at Covenant House, working three jobs and seeking a fourth while pursing a career in healthcare. He said he had been living on the streets of Los Angeles for six months.
“Back then, I was in gangs and all that,” Moody said. “I was in the streets, and I was lost. This was my last chance coming here. I came here, and they changed everything for me.”
Moody said he became homeless after he and his roommate both lost their jobs. He said he has family in the area, but “they were all doing their thing or something, they turned their back or something.”
“It’s like a nightmare, you know what I’m saying? It’s a real nightmare,” Moody added. “You never know what might happen. You can barely sleep. It’s always unprotected. You never know what’s going to happen. You don’t have anybody to have your back. You just have to be on your toes at all times.”
Now, he feels like he can help others. Moody wants to open free clinics and a facility similar to Covenant House.
“I feel like I have succeeded … and I’m going to be a doctor sooner or later,” he said.
Resident Joshua Saurbier had only been at Covenant House for two weeks, but heaped praise on the organization. He said he was also very thankful for the “sleepers” at last week’s event.
“It means a lot, because I think this is amazing,” Saurbier said.
He said a combination of family matters forced him onto the streets of Hawthorne. During his eight-month bout with homelessness, Saurbier said he was attacked and hit seven times with a metal pipe by an unprovoked individual.
“It’s hard to put into words, but it’s extremely hard,” he said. “It gets so freezing night after night after night out there. It takes a big toll emotionally too.”
Now, Saurbier is striving to obtain his GED and an internship at Covenant House. He hopes to get accepted into the organization’s long-term residential program.
“Since I’ve been here, though, it’s been like a three hundred and sixty degree change, really,” Saurbier added. “It’s great. This place is amazing, all the opportunities they give you. I can’t speak highly enough of this place.”
Although its corporate office held a “Sleep Out” last year, this was Covenant House California’s first event. The “Sleep Out” was scheduled to coincide with National Homelessness Month and the holidays, and officials plan to hold it again next year.
“I think it’s the kind of thing people feel good about,” Brodhead said. “These kids haven’t had an equal opportunity, and we’re giving them another shot, another chance. It’s a second chance for every kid. Some can take it, and some can’t. …It’s our job to be their family, at least temporarily.”
For information on Covenant House, visit www.covenanthousecalifornia.org.