A Step Towards Positive Change

Covenant House aims to change the lives of New Jersey's homeless, runaway and trafficked youth.

Mark Wilcox, left, and Marcel Quinones, right, with Covenant House members in front of an outreach van donated by Samsung at Covenant House's Newark location.
(Photo courtesy of Covenant House)

It was an icy 19-degree morning, one day after snow, and I had just joined staff from Covenant House New Jersey on one of their routine outreach walks. We canvassed the streets surrounding Broad Street in downtown Newark, brochures in hand, looking for homeless teens and young adults in need of food, clothing and shelter.

That morning, I had come to visit the Covenant House’s Newark Crisis Center, a community service center that opened its doors to homeless youth in 1992. Since 1989, Covenant House has been providing support to New Jersey’s homeless, runaway and trafficked youth, offering free services including substance abuse intervention, G.E.D. classes, job training and placement, as well as legal assistance and life skills training to a population that desperately needs it. In order to help lead them to brighter futures, reaching youth at the ages of 18 through 21 is critical.

The teens and young adults that come to Covenant House commonly have a history of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. They’ve often witnessed violence, and many suffer from untreated mental health issues. Once they make the decision to walk through Covenant House’s doors, staff and social workers help address their issues so they can achieve stability, success and independence.

“People have failed these kids forever,” says Janette Scrozzo, development director for Covenant House. “Our hope is we catch these kids early so they never have to go into the system of chronic homelessness.”

In addition to its Newark location, Covenant House has outreach programs and crisis centers in Jersey City, Elizabeth, Montclair, Asbury Park, Camden and Atlantic City.

After the walk, I joined the staff on an outreach ride in the Covenant House van, an essential tool that helps get kids off the streets and provide on-the-spot care.

“We have the ability to do what so many people can’t do,” says Marcel Quinones, community services coordinator for Covenant House. “We can go meet the youth where they are.”

Quinones regularly drives through areas like Newark Penn Station, where men routinely scout youth to recruit for human sex trafficking, as well as the abandoned project buildings near Weequahic Park, where homeless youth sometimes sleep. He’ll open the trunk of the outreach van, offering food and water as a way to establish trust, and regularly return to further develop relationships with the youth.

“We continue to raise awareness and plant those seeds,” says Mark Wilcox, part of Covenant House’s outreach team. “It’s all about trust.”

Covenant House is 80 percent privately funded, and relies heavily on donations to fund essential services. One of their most successful fundraising campaigns is an event called Sleep Out, during which business leaders sleep out on the streets in solidarity on cardboard and in sleeping bags. Covenant House also accepts donations year-round.

Back at the Covenant House, I met 19-year-old Kamar. When he was three months old, Kamar and his older brother entered the foster care system when their parents could no longer care for them. The brothers were adopted into the same family, but Kamar experienced abuse in their new home. Shortly after his 18th birthday, Kamar was kicked out, before he could even finish high school.

For the next five months, he bounced around to different homeless shelters in Delaware and Cape May County, and ended up living on the streets in Wildwood, where he slept under the boardwalks, in 24-hour laundromats and abandoned buildings.

“A lot of the time I didn’t eat,” says Kamar. “It didn’t feel good. I wasn’t taught to survive on my own.”

Eventually Kamar’s brother, who was also homeless at the time, found their birth parents on Facebook. The brothers made it to Asbury Park, where their birth parents lived. But once he got there, Kamar discovered they struggled with drug addiction, and their house had no hot water. There was rarely food in the fridge. One day he went out for a walk in search of food, and came upon a Covenant House cookout. There he met Wilcox, who offered him a hot dog and started establishing trust with Kamar.

Kamar has been living at Covenant House in Newark for two months now. “I thought it was going to be like a homeless shelter, but it’s not,” he says. “It’s much better.” In addition to three meals a day, clothing and a bed, Covenant House provides Kamar with counseling services and life-skills training. Kamar’s working on getting his G.E.D., and has a job working in a warehouse on Bloomfield Avenue in Newark.

Despite the trauma he has endured, Kamar remains optimistic about his future. He wants to save enough money to get his own apartment. He looks forward to having a girlfriend, and wants to one day have children.

“I want to show them the greater things in life,” says Kamar. “The things I didn’t have.” And because of Covenant House, his goal is reachable.

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