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Nonprofit works to stem trafficking of homeless youth with stable residency program

Each youth gets his or her own private room, in a building designed to help people feel safe.

With its new $3.5 million Grand Rapids location, nonprofit Covenant House will provide “no barrier” access to education, healthcare, transportation, employment, and safe permanent housing for area youth.
Even on overcast days, sunlight bathes the interior of the newly built Covenant House Michigan, Grand Rapids. That’s because 60 percent of the three-story, 17,000 square-foot building is made of glass.

The stream of sunshine serves as a beacon of hope and a strong sense of transparency to the homeless, at-risk, and runaway youth the Covenant House staff helps to transition into adulthood.

“Any youth that has walked into this building at one time or another has had a lot of darkness in their lives,” says Pam Spaeth, chief operating officer of Covenant House Michigan, Grand Rapids.

“There is not a point in this building where you cannot see through to the next area, except for their bedrooms and areas of privacy which would be the restrooms, their bathrooms, and showers. There are no walls that prevent them from knowing what’s going on and that has a lot to do with a psychological sense of safety.”

Pam Spaeth, COO of Covenant House.

This is the faith-based nonprofit’s second Covenant House in Michigan. The main campus located in Detroit was launched more than 20 years ago. Covenant House International has served more than 60,000 youth in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America since it was incorporated in 1972.

The $3.5 million Grand Rapids locale, at 26 Antoine St. SW, aims to fight the labor and sex trafficking that far too many homeless youth fall prey to. The new edifice is adjacent to its Covenant House Academy Grand Rapids that opened in 2013.
 
Residents are given wifi and open, comfortable spaces to spend time in, to use their smartphones, like any other young adult.

The first floor features an administrative office, a commercial kitchen, needs assessment areas, and a large multi-purpose room. The building’s interior was intentionally designed to support the dignity, respect, and safety for all residents, with particular attention to the LGBTQ community, who are at a 120 percent higher risk of becoming homeless, according to a 2017 Voices of Youth Count, Chapin Hall, University of Chicago study.

The Grand Rapids campus includes 28 beds — 14 for males and 14 for females, on the second and third floors that are dedicated for residential living. Each resident has his or her own private room they can lock themselves, as well as lounge areas, enclave meeting rooms for case management, resident advisor stations, laundry facilities, technology areas equipped with computers, and a café.

The Covenant House staff believes it's important that their residents know there is trust between them and the staff. They can go into their rooms as they please. It’s important for them to have their own key and their own space.
 
Each resident is encouraged to make their rooms their own, with decorations and personal effects.

Nationally, one in 10 youth are homeless, according to a study, Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. More than 900 youth are homeless within Grand Rapids Public Schools alone.

These are more than statistics to Spaeth.

“They’re one decision away (from being trafficked),” says Spaeth. “They’re walking down the street and it’s very cold and they have no place to go. A car may pull up and say, ‘Do you need some place to sleep tonight?’ If they get in that car, with that one decision, they may not be seen again for a very long time.”

That’s a key reason why Covenant House is a residential program, and not a drop-in center for homeless and trafficked youth ages 18-24. The 16-member staff focuses on individualized intervention and “no barrier” access to education, healthcare, transportation, employment, and safe permanent housing.
 
Covenant House emphasizes skills that are essential for jobs and stability. One soft skill that’s emphasized is life skills: how to show up to a job on time, how to get along with co-workers and follow a supervisor’s directions. 

“We have an employment education specialist who walks alongside each one of them to be sure they’re getting to work, that they feel good about work, that they can ask questions of a mentor to help them stay engaged in their workplace,” says Spaeth.

“All of that leads to housing so, with all of this stabilization, it means you can keep that job, you can keep that paycheck, and you can move into your own apartment, host home, or whatever that might look like, but again, you’ll be successful when you get there.”

The average length of stay is three months, but there is no time limit placed upon any of the residents, according to Spaeth.

“Many young people will come into this building at different stages,” she says. “Some will be coming in psychologically at very different stage than their chronological age and they may need a lot more support to get where they need to be to be employed. Their readiness factor is going to vary. We can’t put the pressure of a time limitation on a young person.”

The Covenant House staff will use a triage method to determine which young people are admitted to their program and who should be referred to other area youth services.

A stack of donated shirts waits to be sorted and distributed. That’s a key reason why Covenant House spent more than two years establishing community partnerships with other youth drop in centers, including, but not limited to: Grand Rapids HQ, Mel Trotter Ministries’ Youth Emergency Shelter, Inner City Christian Federation, area school districts, Grand Valley State University, and Grand Rapids Community College. 

“We don’t duplicate but we wrap around with one another,” says Spaeth. “We’ve been working with these organizations to have our partnerships put into place so we’re supporting rather than duplicating.”

It is vital residents feel a strong sense of safety so young people can experience once again a sense of safety and hope for a brighter future. 

“We’re a hospital for the homeless,” says Spaeth. “If we have a young person who’s being trafficked and is in an unsafe situation, we’ve got to get them in this building and get them safe. If we have an individual who’s involved in some sort of violence, we need to get them in this program.”

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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