Illustration via Tallulah Fontaine.

Former Homeless Youth Share How They Were Able to Get Back on Their Feet

As youth homelessness continues to rise, former residents of Covenant House shelters tell us it's more important than ever to support organizations helping get kids off the streets.

Feb 22 2018, 7:30pm

Illustration via Tallulah Fontaine.

Carolina Gutierrez was eighteen when she first went through the doors of the Covenant House -- America's largest non-profit shelter network for homeless youth -- in Manhattan. This was in 2002, September-ish; she figures out the date based on how old her daughter, Angelyss, was at the time. Carolina’s mother had kicked her out after she’d gotten pregnant two years earlier. She’d spent time crashing on friends’ couches, but welcomes wear thin in the tiny apartments of New York. Carolina knew that it was no small thing to ask of people, especially since she was carrying a baby--then a toddler--around with her.

She would see Covenant House’s outreach vans in the parks, and downtown in the Lower East Side. She never talked to them, but someone she knew eventually handed her a card. She gave the shelter a call, but told them that she wasn’t yet ready to go. They said that was fine. Many kids aren’t ready; there’s a lot of stigma in this country to the idea of living in a shelter. Still, they told her where they were, and that they were open 24/7. Eventually, she made the leap.

One encounters this kind of story a lot when talking to and about alumni who’ve “graduated” from Covenant House locations across the country. The causes of youth homelessness are many: escaping a home of addiction, or a parent with mental illness, a father who’s in and out of jail, or an abusive foster situation that becomes so unlivable that the street seems like a better option. But of course each story is unique to the individual.

“I always remember the feeling of love and support, and whenever I walk through those doors it still hits me each and every time.”

Sherri Lochridge was born in Germany, but has lived in New Orleans since she was nine. Growing up, she was placed in more than 20 foster homes, and considers her younger self a “chronic runaway.” Antoine Coulter, also of the New Orleans foster system, got into a disagreement with his adoptive mom and was told to leave. Coulter’s sister told him about Covenant House. Lochridge discovered them by accepting a lunch bag from an outreach team. She had been living in a parking garage.

VICE Impact recently took a trip to the New York shelter, before one of the organization’s sleep-out events, where community leaders, business activists, and individuals who have the benefit of going to sleep with a roof over their head are all invited to spend a night sleeping on the street outside one of the shelters to raise needed funds. CH workers implored visiting young financiers to be patient with their residents: they’d been through a lot to get there. Some of the kids they’d be meeting were still in crisis care, the initial intake program. Crisis care provides immediate necessities like food, shelter, and medical services. As Ms. Gutierrez discovered, CH doesn’t require applications or recommendations through official channels. If you are a youth in immediate need, you will get help. The length of time you can stay depends on yourself, and the state laws. Unsurprisingly, a remittance back into the system is unappealing for many.

Check out the VICE Impact documentary, SHELTER:

“The process at the [Covenant House] Mother & Child program was that you’d stay there for a time, then you’d go to Emergency Assistance Unit, which was the city’s program to help women and children, but that experience was different,” Gutierrez told VICE Impact. “Covenant House was very warm and welcoming and loving, and then you go to the EAU and you’re just shuffled around. I had some rough experiences in the system, being that I was so young, and people didn’t really listen. Didn’t really care. I was just a number.”

“It made me a stronger person. It made me believe in myself. I used to be like, fuck it, I’m useless. It taught me that my past is the past, and that I could live for today.”

So she went back on the street. She was nervous about going back to Covenant House. She thought they’d be disappointed she didn’t go through the process. They weren’t.

“They opened the doors, they streamlined me back in, and they provided us with all of the same services, and this time they didn’t ask me to leave. They were like ‘It didn’t work for you. We’re going to figure it out here. You’re going to stay here until you can get your own apartment,’” Gutierrez said.

Angelyss, who is now about to graduate from high school, remembers CH workers who would play with her so that her mom could study.

Coulter is quick to relate a story about staff taking residents to Blue Bayou—a water park in Baton Rouge, nearly an hour away. Love with respect; it’s a core tenet of the organization precisely because it has been lacking in so many of these kids’ lives.

“It made me a stronger person,” Coulter says of the support he received. “It made me believe in myself. I used to be like, Fuck it, I’m useless. It taught me that my past is the past, and that I could live for today.”

Utilizing CH services, Lochridge got her GED and went to college. Like Gutierrez, she worked while she was a resident, and the shelter would bank her money so that she would have it for when she was ready to move on.

“We’ve taken 138 kids off the streets and out of trafficking networks."

“It was pretty empowering for me. When you’re on the street as a teenager, you’re doing whatever you can to survive,” Lochridge told VICE Impact. “So it was a new dynamic, a new way of life for me.”

When she left, she got married and had children, but she always thought about her time there, and what she could do to make a difference. She went back as a volunteer a few years ago, and now, as the Senior Human Trafficking Case Manager CH New Orleans, is a go-to contact for the FBI and Homeland Security.

“We’ve taken 138 kids off the streets and out of trafficking networks. I love it,” She said. “I love kids. I’m passionate about it. A lot of kids that we have now are experiencing what I felt twenty years ago, that feeling of being a part of family.”

Carolina and her daughter have been living in the same apartment for fifteen years, but Angelyss is readying for a move. She recently got accepted to Loyola University New Orleans. She applied there in part because of its proximity to Covenant House: the same place that provided care and shelter to Lochridge and Coulter.

“I loved working with the homeless youth here [in New York]. And when I knew that there was a CH in New Orleans, I was sold,” she said. “I always remember the feeling of love and support, and whenever I walk through those doors it still hits me each and every time.”

You can make a difference by donating to Covenant House, volunteering at a shelter in your area, and showing support for funding for homeless programs that are essential to groups like Covenant House. Also, you can participate in a Sleep Out Fundraiser or watch the documentary, SHELTER, above to raise awareness and vital resources money for Covenant House's important mission.