It was 4 a.m. Friday and I couldn’t feel my toes. I was wearing four layers on both the bottom and the top. Over my head, my cardboard box was starting to ice over.
I spent about eight hours on a hard, cold pavement of a parking lot in Germantown, thinking about crying and shivering beyond control in the 31-degree weather. And all I could think about was how lucky I am.
It was that distinction that defined my night this weekend with Covenant House, a national organization with two locations in Philadelphia that helps homeless youth between the age of about 16 and 22. The group has both a crisis intake center in Germantown and a “Right of Passage” system in Kensington that helps youth get back on their feet in 18-month increments.
I’d prepared for this night, I was bundled up, I had hand warmers, I was surrounded by people who were there to keep me safe, I had a warm bed at home. This was actually nothing like being homeless. I joined 35 others this weekend who raised money for Covenant House and slept outside during the group’s annual young professionals sleep-out that’s dubbed the event where we sleep outside so homeless youth don’t have to. At the Philly location, young professionals raised about $60,000 to benefit Covenant House locations in Philadelphia, Camden, N.J. and Atlantic City. For sleep-outs across the nation, the total was more than half a million. (To donate to Covenant House, click here.)
Project HOME estimates that there are more than 6,000 homeless in Philadelphia, and about 10 percent are between the age of 18 and 24. The funds raised for Covenant House went directly to the organization that cared for more 50,000 at-risk and homeless teenagers across the country last year alone. The residents got more than just a shelter — they got a home filled with love, stability and education to turn them into productive members of their communities.
I arrived at the Covenant House crisis center Friday evening with a preconceived notion of homeless in my mind, thinking about maybe an older veteran who sleeps on the ground in the Market East area with a can of coins, begging for money and food.
The youth who I met were so much different.
They were abused, victimized, forced to do things they never thought they would have to. One high school senior was abused by his mother and kicked out of his home to fend for himself at age 17. Another was forced to sell his body just so he could eat. Others were taught to sell drugs at the age when the rest of us were navigating through what seemed like trials and tribulations in middle school.
But after being taken in by Covenant House and showed unconditional love, many of the residents learn the skills they need to reach their goals — to move out and start a life of their own.
“With grit and determination, they not only survive but thrive,” Covenant House PA Executive Director John Ducoff said. “Now they lead lives of inspiration.”
When a teenager comes to Covenant House for help, the first thing they’re asked is if they’re hungry. Even if they’ve been there before, even they’re cursing out the person at the door, even if they’d left in the past, they’re asked if they’re hungry.
If they’re ready for intake, they’re given a bed and meet with a case workers to draw up weekly goals and are given about 60 days to job search and try to get back on their feet. If they’re working hard in those two months to get a job and can’t find something, they can ask for an extension and are many times granted it.
During that time, strict rules are in place to keep the youth inside the center at night. They spend their days working, job searching, going to school and learning from the staff about how to walk, talk and operate in a way that’s productive without drug dealing, prostitution or crime.
“Before coming here, I didn’t even know what a resume was,” one Covenant House resident said. “I would go to interviews in Tims and ripped jeans. Now I know how to sell myself. I learned that from them.”
When we finished hearing from residents at Covenant House, it was time to bring our boxes and our sleeping bags and basically our entire lives outside. Searching for a spot near the wall to block the wind was kinda like the Game of Thrones. People set up their boxes strategically in groups to block from the elements, others set up against several walls in the enclosed parking lot. My home for the night looked like this:
By midnight, everyone was starting to climb into their boxes and, at that point, I really didn’t feel all that cold. I was running on an adrenaline high and didn’t think I’d have a problem getting a few solid hours worth of sleep. But getting comfortable was a challenge without a pillow and, ya know, a bed. The weather was brutal; It hit about 30 degrees around 2 a.m., and was sleeting at several points throughout the night.
Being in a box was disorienting, and the sounds of city surrounded us. Getting warm was straight up impossible, I couldn’t feel my fingers and toes and after several hours, boredom set in. In the middle of the night, I could hear people around me snoring, but for some reason, I just couldn’t doze off. Snow kept falling on top of my box, and I may or may not have cried a little.
To pass the time in the box, I fiddled around with my phone, played with my hand warmers and planned out my entire Saturday. By 3 a.m., my hopes of falling asleep at all had started to wane, and I started to try sleeping in fetal position because it was so utterly freezing.
Here’s a look at my night through photos:
Me so ready to sleep outside!
Me at about 2 a.m. feeling sad that I wasn’t sleeping yet:
Me at the coldest I’ve ever been in my life:
By 4 a.m., I essentially started staring at my phone, waiting until 6 a.m. when I could pack up the box and run indoors. Those two hours were excruciating, and I’ve never in my life felt more cold or uncomfortable. My toes were frozen despite wearing snow boots to bed, and I could hardly move the parts of my face that weren’t covered up.
But once it was finally over, we woke up for a brief reflection and were on our way. I hadn’t slept a wink, and I lumbered to my car to head home. When I was opening the door to my car, I briefly stopped, realizing I was going home to my warm bed, where after I took a nap, I would take a hot shower.
For the dozens of kids served by the Philly Covenant House, there was a point in their short lives when that was never expected. The next day was never promised. And there was almost never a warm bed or someone who cared to come home to.
With that in mind, I got in my car, drove home and climbed in my bed.