Testimony of John Ducoff to City Council

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.