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Pride 2017: The 'Cov' opens doors for homeless youth

by Cynthia Laird

Izhaunne Baker, left, and Deandre Harrison have both<br>benefitted from the services at Covenant House's Oakland shelter. Photo:<br>Cynthia Laird
Izhaunne Baker, left, and Deandre Harrison have both
benefitted from the services at Covenant House's Oakland shelter. Photo:
Cynthia Laird  

Situated just a few blocks from Jack London Square, in Oakland's Historic Waterfront Warehouse District, sits a large building that California Governor Jerry Brown lived in when he was mayor of the East Bay city. While Brown is long gone, the space is now called home by 40 formerly homeless youth. They, and other young people who attend daytime programs, are provided holistic â€" and realistic â€" support as part of Covenant House California.

"They just embrace you and take you in," Izhaunne Baker, a young gay man, said in a recent interview. "Clothing, hygiene, meals, and housing. They make you feel safe."

Baker, 21, arrived at the Oakland shelter about four months ago from New Jersey.

Deandre Harrison, 24, identifies as LGBT and is in Covenant House's 90-day transitional housing program. Originally from Louisiana, where he said that LGBT individuals are "not very well accepted," he was homeless when he came to California and was doing odd jobs when he ended up in Oakland.

Since arriving at Covenant House, or the "Cov" as many of the youth and staff call it, Baker and Harrison have both been attending Berkeley City College and are interns at Berkeley Youth Alternatives, where Baker is a youth director and Harrison is assistant youth director.

"I think it's wonderful here," Harrison said. "I get along with most of my roommates."


Array of services

Covenant House California is an affiliation of a national organization that was founded by a Franciscan priest in New York City in 1972. The California programs include the facility in Oakland, a campus in Los Angeles, and a shelter in Berkeley, which it took over in 2016. It is a 503(c)3 nonprofit and serves young people regardless of their religious backgrounds or affiliations, according to a fact sheet.

It works with homeless and trafficked youth.

"Covenant House California is dedicated to serving all God's children, with absolute respect and unconditional love," its mission statement reads, "to help youth experiencing homelessness, and to protect and safeguard all youth in need."

Covenant House's Oakland program started in 1998, said Noel Russell, who works as the development officer. The agency moved into its current building in 2005.

"We slowly expanded and house youth and a drop-in center," Russell explained.

In Berkeley, Covenant House operates YEAH, or Youth Engagement Advocacy and Housing, which has 30 emergency beds.

Russell said that about 3,500 East Bay youth are homeless. Covenant House has the most beds of any service provided in the area, she added.

Many homeless youth identify as LGBT, and Russell said Covenant House's job is to make its spaces safe and affirming, while also providing life skills training and other services.

In mid-May the clients split 50-50 male and female, Russell said, adding that young women are often more intimidated by traditional shelter programs. Covenant House "feels like home" for them, Russell noted.

In addition to the two-year transitional housing program (called Rites of Passage), and the emergency 90-day Safe Haven program, Covenant House's Oakland facility offers a drop-in wellness center, where youth can receive case management services, legal aid, help with obtaining documents such as a birth certificate, and hang out. They can grab a snack and take a shower.

"We're the only daytime drop-in center designated for young people in the East Bay," Russell said. "They have access to computers," which can be used for job searches or retrieving email.

Staff provide workshops, yoga, and help with resumes.

Mental health services are also available.

"It's successful because of our holistic approach," Russell said.


LA gala

Covenant House California President and CEO Bill Bedrossian and his wife, Jennifer Bedrossian, at the agency's Los Angeles gala. Photo: Courtesy Covenant House California

In late April, hundreds of people attended "A Night Honoring Our Stars," Covenant House California's annual gala. Held at the Globe Theatre at Universal Studios Hollywood, guests mingled with TV stars and heard from southern Californian political leaders and agency officials.

While it has historically received significant support from Catholics, today Covenant House is very LGBTQ-friendly. There are out staff members like Krista Girty, MSW, a lesbian who's senior vice president of northern California operations, and its Hollywood gala attracted several gay and straight celebrities who are big supporters.

One of those is Graham Patrick Martin, an ally who plays "Rusty Beck," a gay formerly homeless youth, on the TNT crime procedural "Major Crimes." In fact, most of the cast was on hand at the gala. James Duff, a TV writer and creator of the show, is a gay man and married to actor Phillip P. Keene, who also is a cast member.

"Some young people are in survival mode and many believe the streets is what they deserve," Duff said during his gala remarks. "The door from the streets to the future is Covenant House."

The benefit raised close to $550,000, said Amanda Sattler, chief development and communications officer who is based in LA.

The agency's annual budget for the LA and East Bay programs is a combined $10 million, Sattler explained. Of that, the Bay Area programs have a budget of about $2.5 million, though Sattler said that is expected to increase by $1 million next year.

Covenant House President and CEO Bill Bedrossian, MSW, had led the California programs for the past three years. At the gala, he announced a $10 million capital campaign, with half of that being dedicated to the East Bay programs.

"No young person in California deserves to be homeless," Bedrossian said at the event. "What keeps me up at night is that for every one [person] that I work with, there are hundreds who are not housed."

He said that 85 percent of the agency's clients are using drugs when they enter the program. "Ninety percent are not when they leave."

During the program, many in the audience were nearly brought to tears during "Cardboard Confessionals." Youth and alumni were shown in a video, holding up cardboard signs that said things like "Homeless and Depressed," "Addicted in and out of hospitals," "Sleeping on a park bench," and "Kicked out because of my identity." Then, the young people were shown again, as they flipped over the cardboard signs to reveal the progress they've made.

"Future RN, proud Filipino," read the card of the young person who was formerly homeless and depressed. Another now was working and attending a trade school. The young man who had been sleeping on a park bench held a sign that read, "Working, college student, moving forward."

And the young woman who was kicked out due to her identity was now an "employed modeling queen."

It was a powerful moment when, after the video, several young people appeared on stage holding cardboard signs that they then turned over, revealing their news lives thanks to the services they received at Covenant House. One said he was now an LGBT advocate, while another was now a case manager at the nonprofit.

"My heart is so full because I really did have a lot of those times," said Alex Tellez, a gay formerly homeless Covenant House resident who received the Hollywood Alumni Award. "Being homeless is a very horrible thing."

He said that he overcame a substance abuse issue.

During a recent tour of the Oakland shelter, Girty explained that youth in the transitional housing program work and the goal is to save 80 percent of their income for when they need to move out. Covenant House also works with the youth to obtain public benefits they're eligible for.

"We're trying to provide opportunities," Girty said. "Homelessness is a circumstance. Eighty-five percent transition out into safe and stable housing."

For Baker, one of the challenges has been working on his finances.

"I underestimated the whole process of budgeting," he said, adding that he wants to be out of Covenant House in a year or so.

The youth get solid financial help from longtime volunteer Dan Selleck, who was recognized as the Oakland volunteer at the gala.

"He's a wonderful resource," Harrison said.

Selleck said in April that being a volunteer has meant a lot to him. "It comes back to you and is just unbelievable," he said. "These are our children."

Covenant House will hold its inaugural golf classic fundraiser August 28 to raise funds for its Oakland and Berkeley programs. It will also hold a sleep-out November 17 where donors spend time getting to know the residents and "sleep on the street in their place."

Covenant House has helped Baker and Harrison. In the interview last month, both said that they wanted to start an LGBTQ safe space at the Oakland shelter's wellness center, where people can drop in. In a follow-up email, Russell said the LGBTQ safe space had its first meeting last week. Those who are interested are welcome to stop by or call the center for more information, she said.


The Covenant House California Golf Classic will be held at the Crow Canyon Country Club, 711 Silver Lake Road in Danville. The cost is $250 for an individual golfer or $50 for the dinner only. For more information about that or the sleep-out, visit Click on "Get Involved," then "Events." For information about the LGBTQ safe space, call (510) 379-1010 and ask for the wellness center.


Disclosure: Cynthia Laird's wife, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Victoria Kolakowski, is a member of Covenant House California's Bay Area Advisory Board.




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