Chicago, Illinois. The 30th Covenant House International site to open.
We occupy one floor of an old YMCA building, offering day services to 18-24 year old homeless youth. Soon, we will be expanding our services to a crisis residential shelter and a transitional living center. There was a time when we did not know when or how this dream would become a reality. Since summer 2016, there have been a lot of conversations about how to best use the space we currently lease. With limited bathrooms and no kitchen appliances, we were not sure how to serve youth in the space.
Summer through fall of 2016 was full of discussions about how to serve the homeless youth of Chicago. I learned quickly that to be part of a start-up means to go with the flow. When plan A does not work, you go for plan B - but keep plan C open too. Then scratch it all and do plan D. After hours of meetings, lots of phone calls, and drafts of proposals, we set the space up as best we could as a drop in center for the homeless youth. It was amazing how a fresh coat of paint and an area rug completely transformed the room, and shed light on the hope of what was to come. By the end of January it was finally beginning to feel like Covenant House.
Valentine's Day: A day many people celebrate love of many kinds. We celebrated Covenant House's trademark unconditional love: we publicly opened our doors to the youth of Chicago. Covenant House Illinois (CHIL) was announced. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the press came by for a tour. I even got my photo op with the mayor himself; I only wish I smiled bigger. The day was full of all the excitement and joy over being able to share this with the city.
Currently CHIL operates as a drop-in center close to downtown Chicago. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 8am-3pm, we provide for basic needs through breakfast, lunch, snacks, laundry, showers, nap rooms, and hygiene supplies. There are lockers available for those interested in case management services, which include finding housing, applying for school and jobs, working on legal cases, mental health, physical health, and substance abuse counseling.
The beginning was a slow start. We saw 2 people, the same 2 people, for the first 4 days. Then on day 5, we saw over 10 young people. It was exciting and overwhelming all at once. Since then, our numbers have rapidly increased. Since opening, we have served 114 youth total, averaging 30 people per day.
We serve a lot of different youth from all different circumstances and for a lot of different reasons. Two of these youth have been regularly coming since the beginning. They are best friends. They sleep on the train. They make money any way they can for some food and train passes, and the rest goes into savings. They are saving up to get an apartment. Every day, they come in asking for food, a shower, and to wash the one outfit they each own. At first they had rough and tough attitudes, but that is to be expected when you are surviving on the streets of Chicago. One day, several weeks after receiving services, one came in a much better mood. I asked how they were and commented that they were smiling big and seemed much happier. They replied “I would say I am blessed. I woke up today. I need to give thanks for that. And I can come in here and get food and shower. So today I feel blessed.” Hearing that was a reminder of how there is a great need in this city and that CHIL successfully lives out the Covenant House mission. We are not here to save or fix them, we are here to listen, serve, and empower them to fulfill their goals.
My coworkers inspire me and teach me everyday. It has been a blessing to work collaboratively with them to form this program. We each bring different backgrounds and different ideas, from other jobs and other Covenant House programs. As we grow, and experience conflict we are on the forefront of making decisions that will impact the policies and procedures written for CHIL. Each has a different strength that they bring to the team, which ultimately allows us to better serve the youth. We are a small team, at just 9 people, but a strong team.
I am better because of these two beautiful ladies that I serve in Faith Community with. We have explored Chicago, prayed together, cheered the Cubs through a World Series win, cooked together, cried, and laughed together. Going to work with them is a joy and sharing this year of service with them has made me a stronger and more confident woman of God. Together we were a part of the founding team of CHIL. The experience of starting a new Covenant House site has challenged me to be patient with myself and trust God through the process. I have had to take on new responsibilities and a variety of tasks. I am proud and honored to say that I was here when the idea of CHIL became a reality.
It’s incredible how the space now filled with 30 young adults each day was once blank, white, windowless walls surrounding an empty space just a little over 3 months ago. The energy in that small space on the 5th floor of Lawson House brings me so much joy. The hard work, frustration, planning, meetings, and months of set up were all worth it. Looking back now I see that God was there through it all. As they say, it’s not about the destination, but the journey.