Covenant House Pennsylvania’s Associate Executive Director, Hugh Organ, explains why we were on the lookout for human trafficking during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia City Council
Joint Hearings on Youth Homelessness
April 28, 2016
Committee on Children and Families, Hon. Helen Gym, Chair
Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development, and the Homeless, Hon. Allan Domb, Chair
Testimony of John A. Ducoff, Executive Director
Covenant House Pennsylvania
Good Afternoon. My name is John Ducoff, and I am the Executive Director of Covenant House Pennsylvania.
At the outset, I would like to thank Councilwoman Gym, Councilman Domb, and all the members of the Joint Committee for your leadership on this critical issue.
As we’ve heard today, homeless youth are an invisible population, largely unseen, overlooked, and ignored. I am here today to say that that is a mistake. Certainly, it’s one that harms these young people. But even more than that, it’s a mistake that harms our city and our community. These young people are an opportunity. If we as a city step up now, with a little help and support these young people can become the next generation of Philadelphia’s entrepreneurs and artists, lawyers and doctors, social workers and nurses. If we don’t, as our young people often say, they could end up the next generation of adults experiencing chronic homelessness, in jail, or dead.
At Covenant House, we work exclusively with homeless youth. We served 51,000 young people last year in 27 locations in six countries, including 2,500 in Philadelphia alone. We do street outreach, where we find young people out on the street; we offer short-term emergency housing, where young people can walk in 24/7/365 and have a safe place to stay and receive a full array of education, employment, physical health, mental health, substance abuse, and case management services; and we operate our Rights of Passage long-term transitional housing program, where we help our young people learn to live independently. But the core of our work is this: we become family for our young people. That’s what our kids say – Covenant House is my family. And we all know that family lifts kids up so they can, with grit and determination, transform their lives and truly ascend to their full potential.
Last year, our emergency housing program served 512 homeless youth. But we turned away 546 more because our house was full. These 546 young people – and the hundreds and thousands just like them all across the city – are our kids.
The young people we serve sit right at the intersection of two City agencies: the Department of Human Services, which is responsible for addressing child abuse and neglect; and the Office of Supportive Housing, which is responsible for addressing homelessness. Our kids are homeless because of abuse, neglect, and family instability. In fact, 40% of our young people were in foster care and still ended up homeless. And the 60% of our youth who weren’t easily could have been; they grew up in the same neighborhoods and endured the same abuse, neglect, and trauma, they just didn’t come to the attention of DHS. These young people – the 512 we served and the 546 we turned away – are DHS’s kids.
To its great credit, the Office of Supportive Housing has functionally ended veteran homelessness and made tremendous progress toward ending chronic adult homelessness, building thousands and thousands of units of affordable housing for this incredibly deserving population. But, unfortunately, OSH has made little progress toward ending youth homelessness. There are only 76 emergency housing beds specifically designed to serve teenagers and adolescents in the entire city of Philadelphia. OSH counts those beds in its continuum, but funds none of them. 51 of those 76 beds are at Covenant House, and are funded 100% by private philanthropy. OSH did not contribute to help the 512 youth we served last year or the 546 we turned away. These youth – the 512 we served and the 546 we turned away – are OSH’s kids.
Today, we respectfully recommend two solutions. First, the Mayor’s Office should create an interagency council including government and non-government stakeholders, charge it with developing, resourcing, executing, and reporting publicly on a strategic plan to end youth homelessness, and ensure that the council and city government are laser focused on that goal until that work is done.
Second, although a strategic plan is critical, we cannot wait for a plan to begin this work. A few months ago, I was standing by our front door when a young woman walked in. When I asked her if I could help her she looked at me, as tears started streaming down her face, and said: “I’m 18 years old, I’m eight months pregnant, and I don’t have a place to stay.” I invited her in to our cafeteria, gave her a sandwich and a drink, and told her that we couldn’t help her because our house was full. We had that conversation 546 times last year. And there’s a very good chance that one of my coworkers will have that same conversation today. Twice. That’s why we believe that the City must immediately increase the number of emergency housing beds designed to serve youth.
We stand ready to do our part. I have a list of the 546 youth we turned away with their cell phone numbers. If the City provided the resources, we’d start expanding tomorrow. And I commit today that, if we had the resources, within 100 days we would grow to serve 180 more homeless young people each year. That’s a good start. But we would need to more than double in size to serve all 546 of the young people we turned away last year. And if that’s what we have to do, we will. Because these 546 young people are our kids; they’re DHS’s kids; they’re OSH’s kids; and they’re Philadelphia’s kids.
We’re here today because we stand ready to work together with Council and the Administration to help these kids. We’re here today because we stand with the community of people who care about these kids. And we’re here today because we stand with the 546.
Thank you for the opportunity to be here today and for Council’s leadership on this issue. I would welcome any questions.
Good afternoon. My name is Joseph and I am 22 years old. My story is about who I was and who I am today.
I was born a crack baby to a drug addicted mother in Philadelphia. My dad was not on the scene and my mom made an attempt to raise me for three years while child services kept their eyes on her, as they had since I was born. At age 3 my mom put me up for adoption, but because I was hard to place, I spent 8 years in more foster homes than I can remember, only staying for a few weeks at a time. Passed around, a problem left for case workers to figure out, a name on a file, a number…I was someone no one seemed to want.
Finally adopted at age 10 by a loving single lady, I had found a home. In spite of my good fortune, I was still a very angry kid. Anger consumed me and directed my behavior. I was kicked out of numerous schools, I was hurting the relationship with my adopted mom, and destroying any opportunity to make something positive out of myself. After a few years, my life began to become as much about leaving home on my own to go and do what I wanted, to being kicked out by my mom because I was running wild. I was a complete mess.
At age 17 I was arrested and locked up as an adult for a year and a half. There I was, a number yet again. Once released, it became all about survival. I house hopped until I wore out my welcome and then spent a couple of months living on the streets. Selling drugs just to be able to have money to eat, I slept in LOVE Park, in abandoned buildings, and eventually found myself in and out of adult shelters. I wonder if any of you have ever been to an adult shelter? Let me tell you, it was no joke. All types of folks crammed together in one building—chronic homeless, drug addicts, people that just got released from jail, folks with serious mental health issues—all piled in together. 30 men in one shower room, bed bugs, terrible food…One night I woke up and there was a rat on my bunk. I’m sure those places try to do some good, but it didn’t feel that way to me at the time. I was just another homeless person in the way, just a number, just a body filling a bed.
When I first arrived at Covenant House I was still street minded. After being passed around so many times, I didn’t think they were going to be anything different. 3 hots and a cot was all I expected and all I allowed myself to get. I didn’t trust anyone, didn’t care about the rules, and tried to just do what I wanted. Needless to say, I was in and out of Covenant House several times, but they never gave up on me and always welcomed me when I came back. Then, one day, something in me changed. I realized I was going nowhere…The street had nothing to offer me besides eventual time behind bars or a coffin. The people at Covenant House really did seem to care. I had a home setting again that could provide me with the structure and love I desperately needed. It was clean and it was safe, so different than the other shelters. I made an active decision to change. I followed a schedule. I actively searched and found legitimate employment. I learned to think ahead, not just think of “now.” I decided to trust the staff and build relationships with them. I was pushed to succeed and I respected the staff for doing that. Covenant House gave me a firm foundation from which to start again and to help me work to the point that I didn’t see homelessness as an option anymore. I began to make a transformation from who I was for so many years to who I am today.
During my time at Covenant House, I moved from Covenant House’s shelter to its transitional living program, Rights of Passage, where I had an apartment but still had the support I needed. I worked, first at the Monkey and the Elephant, a great coffee shop that seeks to employ former foster care youth. Isn’t that awesome? A business that hasn’t forgotten those of us that were left behind by others. I’ve also been a mentor at YouthBuild, helping people just like me, and now I work at Urban Tree Connection, an organization that turns vacant lots into community gardens. And a few weeks ago, I moved into my own beautiful apartment at the brand new Francis House of Peace just a few blocks from here.
I was many things before Covenant House…but I have chosen not to let those things in my past define me. The staff helped to shape me into the man before you today. My commitment back is to help shape the lives of younger youth so they don’t end up on the streets like I did.. I am a success…I am a leader…I am wanted…I am supported and cared for…I am loved…I am Joseph.
Good afternoon. My name is Charisma, and this is my daughter, Angel. Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today and share my story.
Three years ago, I was living happily with my mom and my siblings – we were all together celebrating holidays and birthdays like a normal family. Then, last year, after our family could no longer afford to pay heat, water, and rent, we found ourselves with no food, split apart, and homeless. While my family went to a shelter, my daughter, Angel, and I basically went from place to place trying to find a stable home. From my aunt’s couch to going to OSH each morning to try to get a bed for the night.
When Angel and I were on the street, it made me feel shame. I never imagined being in this situation, and I felt the pain of not being able to care for my baby. Most days I cried as I held my child, and tried to get myself together for her sake. Finally, OSH told me about Covenant House, and that’s when I got a glimpse of hope. Even though I found myself in a horrible situation, once I got into Covenant House, that’s when things started to change.
When I first walked through the doors, I was asked if I wanted a hot meal, but even though I was hungry, I said “no” because I wasn’t used to people taking care of me. Over time, I learned to not push people away who want to help me and I began to see staff as people I can trust. They taught me how to budget, save my money, and maintain a job. But more than all that, they gave me love without strings attached, unconditional love.
Last month, I transitioned to Covenant House’s Rights of Passage program where I have my own apartment, and I’m learning how to manage living on my own and how to be the best parent for my baby. While I’m here, I plan to get a head start on my goals. My next step is an Associates degree to work toward my dream, which is to become a pediatrician, helping small children who suffer from tumors.
Although I’ve had a rough journey, I am much stronger because of it, and I’ve seen myself stretch to new heights. That’s why I’m here today, because I know there are other youth struggling with homelessness, trying to find even a safe place to sleep and food for today. And I hope that me being here and sharing my story will open your eyes to the realities and challenges we face every day. I hope that my voice will help other youth speak up and know that we can change the world if we never give up.
Thank you. I hope me standing here and telling my story really inspires all of you to help us youth stand strong and continue pressing our way through all of this because it’s success at the end of the tunnel.
They say homeless youth are invisible . . . well, not today!
The Philadelphia City Council, under the leadership of Councilwoman Helen Gym and Councilman Allan Domb, convened a hearing today focused on ending youth homelessness, and our youth were out in force! News coverage featuring one of our amazing young people, Joseph, and the hearing itself at the links below – check it out!
“Last year, Covenant House served 512 youth. It turned away another 546 – including 41 pregnant women, like the 18-year-old who walked in eight months pregnant and asked for a place to stay. [Executive Director John] Ducoff gave her a sandwich and a drink. And then he told her they couldn’t help her. ‘She had the courage to ask for help, but I couldn’t give it,’ he says.”
Covenant House Pennsylvania is featured in a powerful article by The Philadelphia Citizen. Take a look here.
The Philadelphia Inquirer featured our remarkable young people and their journeys to college in this week’s Sunday Inquirer. Read the story here.
CHPA’s Executive Director, John Ducoff, sat down with Marty Moss-Coane, the host of WHYY’s Radio Times, Laura Rena Murray, an investigative reporter who had been homeless as a teen, and Brandon Stokes, a formerly homeless youth, for an in-depth discussion of youth homelessness in Philadelphia. Listen here - Radio Times