On November 19th, I joined more than a thousand other executives in cities across North America who slept outside to raise money and awareness for Covenant House. This was my third year participating in the Executive Edition Sleep Out for this nonprofit organization that provides transitional housing and vital support services for homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 22. I’ve blogged about my past Sleep Out experiences here and here. This year, what transpired between the candlelight vigil and lying in my sleeping bag on a cardboard box will stay with me for a long time to come.
As part of a select group of volunteers who had participated in three or more Sleep Outs, I had the opportunity to ride in the Covenant House Georgia Street Outreach van and witness firsthand the search and rescue process. Every night, Covenant House staff members and volunteers comb the streets for kids that need help. They deliver brown bag meals and toiletries and try to build a rapport with these teens and young adults. Oftentimes it takes multiple interactions before the kids will trust the outreach team enough to accept their offers of help. They’ve simply been burned by adults too many times in their lives. They also have to be willing to be drug-free and make other commitments to stay at Covenant House. The outreach coordinator in our van tells us about a boy she’s been trying to bring in for a few weeks. She saw him the day before and he was sober, so she’s hopeful he’ll be a Covenant House resident soon.
BRIDGE TO NOWHERE
Our first stop on the outreach route was an abandoned bridge in Northwest Atlanta, aptly nicknamed the “Bridge to Nowhere.” Alongside rancid, molding food and garbage, a dozen mattresses lined the walkway to the bridge. The bridge is so dilapidated that we did not venture too far along the path. Some kids stay on this bridge. Others use it to hop onto stopped trains on the tracks below.
As a small group of young people gathered around our van near the bridge, I spotted a young woman who looked like she could have graduated from high school with my daughter. We had more meals than kids, so I approached the girl and asked if she would like my last two sandwiches. I’ll never forget the way her eyes lit up like it was Christmas. Instead of keeping both brown bag meals that I offered, the girl handed one of the bags to a friend. She said, “Now we both have two lunches.” I was overwhelmed by this girl’s act of selflessness, a trait that Covenant House workers say they have witnessed many times on the streets. Atlanta’s homeless tend to form communities so they can look out for each other. Older homeless adults often call Covenant House and tip them off to kids on the streets because they don’t want these children to follow in their footsteps.
Another stop on the outreach route was an area called the “Twin Towers.” Homeless youth utilize these two, multistory buildings that were once part of Morris Brown College. The defunct school and the City of Atlanta are embroiled in legal proceedings over the buildings, so they stand vacant.
As we continued our ride-along in the Covenant House van, we drove past a stretch of stores and businesses where our guide told us drug dealers openly sell heroin. We saw a vacant lot between row houses where homeless kids have set up a makeshift campsite.
We soon returned to Covenant House Georgia where we continued the Executive Edition Sleep Out activities. We listened to the residents’ stories of their lives on the streets and learned about the circumstances that landed them there–tales of neglect, physical and sexual abuse, abandonment. We watched a video that one of the residents created to tell his story. It featured many of the places I’d just seen as part of the van tour. Please take a few minutes to watch the video for yourself. It speaks volumes and teaches so much. I can’t find enough words to express how hopeful, humbled and inspired this message makes me feel.
Still, my thoughts are with the young woman who took my last brown bag meals and shared them with her friend. I think of the horrible smells and conditions of the places where these kids are living. I think of the drug dealers and human traffickers who prey on kids who have already experienced a lifetime of hurt before they reach the streets. During this season of thanksgiving, I am so thankful for Covenant House and hope you will join me in helping these kids.
In Atlanta, we raised more than $310,000 for homeless youth during the November Sleep Out. Still, it’s not too late to support this worthy organization. You can donate between now and the end of the year at my Covenant House Executive Sleep Out fundraising page. I’d be grateful for your help.