On a bitter cold and stormy night on the lower east side of Manhattan, six runaways were sleeping in the doorway of a young priest's apartment. When asked why the kids weren't at home in bed, they simply replied: "we don't have a home - we're runaways".
That night, unbeknownst to himself, Father Bruce Ritter founded Covenant House. Little did he know that 35 years later, Covenant House would be North and Central America's largest privately funded child and youth care agency.
Vancouver has a need
In the mid-90s, at the request of past Covenant House Toronto executive director Ruth daCosta, Sister Mary Rose McGeady, former President of Covenant House International, visited Vancouver and spent the night driving through the streets of downtown. As they drove through the downtown core and eastside, Ruth asked Sister Mary Rose, "do you see them, do you see the kids" and Sister replied "I'd be blind not to see them."
To confirm what Sister Mary Rose had witnessed, Covenant House Toronto conducted a needs and feasibility study to determine if there was a population of homeless and runaway youth in Vancouver and if so, would these young people benefit from the services provided by Covenant House. An overwhelming 100% of respondents indicated that short-term transitional shelter was virtually non-existent in Vancouver.
The doors open and we are full
With the support of 7,500 donors who had been donating to Covenant House Toronto, we took a leap of faith and opened our doors on September 22, 1997. The first night we were full (with just 12 beds) and we've been full ever since. In the first 10 years, we expanded our shelter twice (to 18 then 22 beds) and opened a 44 bed transitional living program, Rights of Passage (ROP).
When we first opened, the young people we served were very similar to those seen at other Covenant House sites: the majority had either fled physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse or had been "kicked out" of the family home. For the most part these young people are under-educated and lag behind their peers in both social and emotional development. Marijuana and alcohol (crystal meth wasn't on the scene yet) were the drugs of choice and there was little awareness of "street kids" in Vancouver.
Addiction and mental health issues explode
During this past decade we have seen an explosion in the number of youth presenting with serious mental health and addictions issues. Likewise, we continue to identify an increase in the number of youth who have aged out of foster care (19 years old) and have no where to live and no source of income. Homelessness, and a lack of affordable housing, continues to be identified as major concerns by Vancouver residents.
Covenant House has witnessed the results of chronic homelessness; during the last few years, the numbers of young people coming to our shelter increased to the point where we were turning away more youth than we serving. To address this distressing trend, we asked the Province of British Columbia for help and in April 2008, we secured a $5M one-time gift which allowed us to add 37 extra beds (for a total of 54) to our Crisis Program.
Growth and adaptation continue
Turning to the government for this seed money was an anomaly for Covenant House Vancouver, a proudly privately funded organization. However, the urgent need to bring these kids inside trumped our usual approach of waiting until private funds had been raised. Both Covenant House and the governments from who we received support, were confident that our 50,000+ donor base would sustain this rapid and necessary expansion of service.
Now in our 18th year of providing care to Vancouver's street youth, we do so with the strength of over 120 volunteers and 55,000 donors behind us. We will continue to augment our carefully designed continuum of care and improve upon our services, driven by the ultimate goal shared by all 21 Covenant House sites: that there be no youth on the street.