- Stephanie Taylor is the outreach manager at Covenant House Michigan, a shelter for homeless youth ages 18 to 24 located in Detroit.
- She spends her days making contact with at-risk youth to offer them food, clothing, and medical attention, and encourages them to come stay at the Covenant House shelter.
- Taylor and her colleagues provide education, employment, and permanent housing opportunities to help youth get back on track and become independent adults.
- Amid the pandemic, Taylor says she hopes more people realise that homelessness and poverty can happen to anyone, and that no young person should be overlooked or left behind.
- This is her story, as told to freelance writer Ashley Zlatopolsky.
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We pray before we leave every day for our outreach program at Covenant House Michigan, a faith-based nonprofit organisation in Detroit that provides a home for homeless youth ages 18 to 24. We don’t carry any weapons and we can’t touch anyone, so we ask God to keep us covered. Some of these youth don’t like rules, and they have been banned from other shelters for violence, but as outreach workers, it’s our job to service them.
When we go out on the streets in Detroit to encourage youth to come to our shelter, it can take time to build a relationship.
If they do trust us and come with us, we’re able to provide some of our services right away, whether it’s taking them to a hospital for medical care or taking them to our shelter if they need food and clothing.
If they want to go back to school, we’ll help them get registered. We’ll also help them find permanent housing. The shelter allows for a 90-day stay, but because of COVID-19, we’ve been letting people stay longer. If they need somebody to talk to, we’ll try to do whatever we can to make sure we can give them a support system. We always ask them, “What’s your one goal? What’s the one thing you’ve always wanted to do?” Then, we’ll work to help them achieve that.
As outreach manager at Covenant House, I do a bit of everything.
My work can sometimes feel like case management. Our days run from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with two shifts, morning and afternoon. There is a staff of four on the outreach team that alternate shifts. We travel in groups of two, always one female and one male. This is for safety and liability for both parties. Now with COVID-19, we take temperatures and ask safety questions as well. We make sure anyone we pick up gets a shower and clean clothes.
Every day we begin by checking our voicemail to see if we’ve received any calls for help. We’ll immediately make arrangements to get people connected to our services. For example, we took in a young lady who was homeless and had been staying in an abandoned mobile home for six months. We took care of her medical needs, made sure she had a physical and had her dental work done. We helped her get housing, and got her registered in school.
We take our outreach van to “hotspot” areas where homeless youth hang out. We show our presence to make sure they know that when they’re ready, they have a place to go for help. We hand out our business cards with our phone numbers. My phone is on 24 hours a day, so youth can reach me anytime. I’ve learned to find balance with my work duties by meditating and praying in my free time.
We always make sure the shelter is a safe place for each person who comes our way.
Some people need more intensive mental health or medical care, so we might take them to the hospital instead. When youth come to the shelter, there are special measures that keep everyone safe, including checking for weapons with a metal detector. It can be dangerous sometimes.
In fiscal year 2020, our outreach program served nearly 700 individuals. The program has an annual funding of $US100,000. To keep a youth member fully off the streets for one day, it costs $US81.96. To provide food and shelter only for a week, it costs about $US204, while a month will cost $US819, and a year will cost $US9,828.
When I started here in 1998, I was only 25 years old myself, close to the age of the young people we service. I’m originally from Inkster, which is in metro Detroit. I was always interested in outreach and initially worked for another nonprofit organisation that provided support for youth waiting on court dates and facing jail time. We would sit down and listen to them, and they would tell us why they committed crimes. A lot of them would say things like “I was hungry” or “I needed to get food for my family.”
I realised that these young people were babies, often whose backs were up against the wall and thought these were the only options they had. When Covenant House came to Michigan to start their program, it gave me an opportunity to try to prevent these situations from happening to more young people who were struggling and needed support. It inspired me to join their mission and go further into this field.
We always say to people, “Don’t forget about these youth.”
A lot of them tend to have mental health concerns or substance abuse struggles because they try to erase what they have been through. So many of them have been in the foster care system that once they turn 18, we hear them say something like, “I just wish I had a family.”
For most of us, we don’t realise how blessed we are to go home to our families every night, and know they’re going to be there. For these young people we serve at Covenant House, we workers become their aunts or uncles or families. We don’t judge them.
Especially now during COVID-19, I think more people realise that homelessness or poverty can happen to anyone.
Even if you have a comfortable income, a disaster or unavoidable circumstance could cause you to go from having a safety net to being unable to pay for housing or bills in an instant.
A lot is different now because of the pandemic. Places like coffee shops and the dining areas in McDonald’s have shut down, so youth have fewer places to go for temporary shelter from the outdoors.
Social distancing is also hard for us because we need to be able to approach youth in order to help them. It’s tough because we try to keep everyone safe, and because of the pandemic we might not be able to reach out to as many youth as we previously could. I don’t want any young person out there to suffer, so it means a lot to me to be able to come in and do whatever I can to help these young people.
I want to help them become safe, successful, and get connected to the resources they need. I tell people all day long that even though this is a job, it’s a ministry. It’s a blessing. If you want to go into this field, please have a lot of patience and don’t ever give up. Some of these young people are going to be in charge one day, and we have a chance to plant that seed to help them flourish.
Ashley Zlatopolsky is a Detroit-based writer and editor. Her work can be found in Rolling Stone, National Geographic, the Guardian, and The Atlantic, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter at @ashley_detroit and learn more on her website.