Amid family dysfunction—the No. 1 cause of teen homelessness in St. Louis—thousands of the city’s troubled youth have found a positive new path through Covenant House.
Part of Covenant House Inc., the nation’s largest privately funded provider of food, shelter and support services to runaway, homeless and at-risk youth, the local chapter offers short- and long-term housing and support services for ages 16 to 21. The organization’s 60 staff members, 250 volunteers and partnering agencies annually serve 5,700 youngsters. Its short-term residential program runs for up to 45 days, while its long-term program is two years.
Young adults often are referred to Covenant House through hospitals, schools and social workers. Others come into the organization through its Mobile Street Outreach van, which travels throughout the city and county looking for teenagers who need help. Covenant House focuses on serving youth outside traditional child protective services, law enforcement and juvenile justice agencies. About 50 percent of participants are foster care children. “They may have chronically homeless parents or parents with a history of drug abuse,” says executive director Sue Wagener.
Covenant House partners with community agencies to provide mental health, medical, educational and employment services. With assistance from the St. Louis Mental Health Board, the nonprofit recently expanded its mental health services to include on-site psychiatric services, individual and group counseling and aftercare services.
At Covenant House, youth stay in a dorm-style, 52-bed unit while meeting the requirements of maintaining a job and saving 60 percent of their income. Their savings are matched two-to-one through United Way of Greater St. Louis’ Individual Development Account program. “It’s a great opportunity for our kids who are looking to save for rent on an apartment, a car or schooling,” Wagener notes.
Youth also have the opportunity to take life skills classes—which include finance management, cooking and grocery shopping—as well as education courses, to help earn a GED. “They are parented like they would be at home,” Wagener says.
Through Covenant House’s jobs courses, the teens also learn how to be good employees— from arriving timely and consistently for work to positive communication with co-workers and customers. The organization recently added six- to 10-week internship opportunities that lead to full-time positions with local businesses, including St. Louis Bread Company, Nex-Tech Aerospace, Pelopidas Production Company and Six Flags. “We want to broaden their horizons and show them there are choices when it comes to careers and their futures,” Wagener says.
For one local 18-year-old, the Covenant House staff has become “like a family.” “Covenant House has really helped me see my own potential,” says the teenager, who has taken the organization’s life skills classes and is looking for a job to earn money for college.
Another young professional, who has learned to save money for a new apartment through the life skills classes, has enjoyed the organization’s focus on community service— from giving supplies to the area’s homeless to making monetary donations to victims of natural disasters.
Wagener says it feels amazing to see participants— who could have “lost their lives to the streets”—excel in the organization’s programs and make an “honest, legal living.” She says witnessing that moment when their paths switch makes all the work worth it.
Volunteer: Chris Ross
Chris Ross believes when individuals thrive, the community thrives. That’s why he volunteers at Covenant House, a charity that helps troubled local youngsters get back on track.
“If there are people and portions of the community that are struggling, it’s a community problem,” Ross says.
Two years ago, Ross began making his mark on Covenant House. He contributed to the organization’s jobs skills classes by performing mock interviews to help youth prepare for real-world employment. “If we help them be more successful in job interviews, it may set them on the path to be productive members of our community,” he says.
The father and businessman found he related to the youth well—so well he wanted to do more for the nonprofit’s residents, many of whom are the same age as his own children. His interests in fitness and nutrition, as well as recreational and utilitarian bicycling led him to teach evening courses in basic nutrition and bicycle repair, where teens can earn used bicycles they fix. In addition, Nex-Tech Aerospace’s St. Louis manufacturing facility, where he serves as general manager, recently began offering 10- to 12-week internships to Covenant House participants. The practical business experience often leads to full-time employment with the company—one Covenant House graduate has already begun working for Nex-Tech. “It’s really helping these kids have an avenue to lead a productive life rather than a life of struggles,” Ross notes.
Regardless of hectic job and family life schedules, Ross recommends making charity work a priority. “I would encourage other people to see how they can get involved at Covenant House or another charity that speaks to them. I’m an extremely busy guy—I have a business, a family and more—but the time spent is rewarding enough to make it worth my while.”