If you saw your 16-year-old daughter walking alone on Olive Street after dark, would you be concerned for her safety? Of course you would. So would I. Unfortunately, each night, thousands of young people choose life on the dark, cold, dangerous streets because they believe that is a better option than staying in their home.
That’s why my wife, Donna, and I, along with over 30 executives across the region, have chosen to leave the comforts and warmth of our homes to sleep outside on the cold concrete for one night this month in solidarity with the thousands of homeless St. Louis youths.
This year, Covenant House Missouri, whose mission is to empower homeless, runaway and at-risk youths to live independently and become contributing members within our community, has reached out to the more than 2,000 young people on the streets of St. Louis city and county to offer safety, refuge and hope. Left without options or guidance, the future of these youths can result in prostitution, drug abuse, gang membership, violence, prison and even death.
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How does a teenager become homeless? For most, the family environment in which they were living was scarier and more threatening for them than life on the street. Many are forced to flee their homes to escape abuse, neglect, untreated mental illness and substance abuse issues within their families. These children represent every economic, geographic and racial demographic and come from all across the region.
This week is National Homeless Awareness Week. It’s a great time to acknowledge the daily struggles and dangers that homeless youth like 17-year-old Brenda face every day. Brenda became homeless because her mother left their apartment one day and never returned. She found Covenant House Missouri after walking to the library and searching “homeless kids” on the Internet. With the support of our incredible staff, dedicated volunteers, generous contributors and sheer will and tenacity on her part, Brenda earned her high school diploma. She has a full-time job and she just moved into her own apartment. She’s safe. She’s fed. She has shelter, and most importantly, she has hope.
While not every youth who enters the doors of Covenant House Missouri has this outcome, every child deserves the opportunity for a successful future. That’s exactly what we strive to provide. In the past year alone, Covenant House Missouri has touched the lives of more than 6,000 youths. We have provided street outreach to 2,871 youths. We have served 280 young people through our crisis residential program (45-day stay). Thirty-two youths live in our transitional living program (up to two years) and 90 percent of all the youth who have stayed with us are discharged to stable housing. We supported 327 kids with services such as GED training, employment training and job placement, internships, medical care and counseling. The demand for services is up substantially.
No teenager should be forced to face the dangers of homelessness. As compassionate members of this community, we have the obligation to care for these youths who — through no fault of their own — come from families that are either unwilling or unable to care for them. As you kiss your children good night tonight, I ask that you imagine them seeking refuge and safety alone, in the dark, in a cold abandoned building. Are you concerned for their safety? Of course you are. Help us provide hope and a promising future for homeless teens in St. Louis. They deserve to know they are not alone because people like us are standing by them as they try to create productive and meaningful lives for themselves.
Paul Kindl is board chairman of Covenant House Missouri.