John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, takes part in the Covenant House Sleep Out Nov. 19, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. The annual event to raise money and awareness for homeless youths in Covenant House programs in the United States, Canada and Central America. (CNS photo/Patrick G. Ryan, The Catholic University of America)

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) — This year, when many fundraisers became virtual events due to COVID-19 restrictions, Covenant House Sleep Out went hybrid.

The Nov. 19 event was dubbed a virtual sleep out this year, but thousands across the country also slept outside to raise awareness and funds for homeless youths helped by Covenant House programs across the United States, Canada and Central America.

“We’re not pretending to be homeless … but we are in prayerful solidarity with young people facing homelessness across the hemisphere,” Kevin Ryan, Covenant House President and CEO, said the day before the event.

Ryan, who slept outside in New York City, said his wife planned to sleep in a church parking lot and many were sleeping on the floor in their homes or in backyards or on front porches. This year, the event didn’t have the big group gatherings such as last year’s sleep out at Yankee Stadium.

But the message was still the same. “The idea is to have a night in solidarity,” Ryan told Catholic News Service.

The event, now in its 10th year, always a week before Thanksgiving, has raised more than more than $80 million in the past decade for the organization, founded under Catholic leadership in 1972, that offers food, shelter and employment training programs for about 74,000 young people each year.

It currently provides care for more than 2,100 youths in its 31 homes across the country and in Canada and Central America.

Teams signed up with Covenant House prior to Nov. 19 and got involved in fundraising efforts and were encouraged to take part in online sessions where they could hear directly from young people involved in the program. A team from The Catholic University of America joined the event, including the university’s president, John Garvey, who slept outside in Washington.

Ryan said the event this year was even more crucial because of COVID-19’s impact.

Since the onset of the virus, he said Covenant House locations have seen “a huge uptick in the number of young people who haven’t eaten in three or four days.” He said they have distributed 1.4 million meals since the pandemic started, which is a 75% increase from what they were doing previously.

Before, these teens and young adults were either getting meals at school or at their jobs in food industry, but with many schools now virtual and restaurants closed, these food options are no longer there.

The challenge now for many young people confronting homelessness, virtual schools or unemployment is also the “inability to move forward,” Ryan said, noting the limited future job prospects, the difficulty in getting any kind of psychiatric help right now and the anxiety of sheltering in place without shelter and worrying about the next meal.

In the first months of the pandemic, a number of young people and staffers tested positive for the coronavirus and several Covenant House locations had to repurpose office rooms or storage space to provide isolated places for the sick.

This summer, Ryan said, they had fewer infections and essentially “established a new normal” with health protocols in place. He noted that with the homeless youth who come through their doors each day, “we don’t know who they are or where they’ve been. It’s critical to welcome them, but we have to assess if they are sick.”

He said with the winter coming up and the coronavirus surge happening across the country, they are scrambling for more personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and food.

“All of us are uncertain in the world right now, but to not have shelter and be unaccompanied in this world is something most of us don’t know,” he said.

He also noted the fact that the federal government “has not provided people with addition relief with this level of suffering is inexcusable.”

Ryan say the lack of support stems from “leadership in Washington being so far away from what so many American young people suffer,” adding that if they knew more about this they would “work much harder to create a safety net.”

For now, it’s “up to people of faith” to bridge that gap, he said.

Ryan said he is often reminded of what Sister Rose McGeady, the Daughter of Charity and former Covenant House president, used to say: “When you have volunteered and opened shelters and young people are still there, what do you do? You do more.”

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