ATLANTIC CITY — Father Stephen Siniari remembers first coming to Atlantic City in the early 1990s to help homeless young adults.
Siniari, an Orthodox priest connected with Covenant House, had begun doing street outreach in the city and believed he could eliminate teen homelessness.
“At first, I thought we could put ourselves out of business,” he said of his early optimism.
Now, almost 25 years later, Siniari knows that every success story is quickly replaced by another young person in need. The work of Covenant House, which provides meals, housing and counseling for homeless people ages 18 to 21, is needed more than ever.
Covenant House is celebrating 25 years in New Jersey this year. Atlantic City and Newark were its first two locations, but it has expanded into Camden, Montclair, Elizabeth, Asbury Park and Jersey City. Headed by former New Jersey Child Advocate Kevin Ryan, Covenant House NJ operated on a budget of about $9 million a year in 2012, and relies on fundraising and donations to finance its operations.
The Atlantic City Community Service Center includes a shelter that can house 27 people, and the Rights of Passage short-term apartments that help working young people learn to live independently.
Atlantic City site director Brian Nelson, of Egg Harbor Township, said about 300 young people are served in Atlantic City each year, most coming from Atlantic County.
“These are kids for whom home is no longer safe,” he said.
Some have been abused or are aging out of foster care. They may have drug or alcohol problems.
“They couch surf with friends and family, but eventually hit the streets, where the gangs and pimps start coming around,” Nelson said.
Manuel Arroyo, 20, moved up from Florida to stay with his grandparents, but their lease prevented him from moving in. He learned about Covenant House, which is giving him a place to stay, meals and a coat heavier than the light jacket that was sufficient in Florida.
“I don’t know what I’d do if they weren’t here,” he said. “I’m very thankful.”
The shelter is open 24/7, though there is a 9 p.m. curfew and rules residents must follow. A staff of 50 manages the center.
The first thing new arrivals are asked is if they are hungry.
“We take care of their basic needs first,” said Jennifer Williams, program coordinator and development director. “Do they need a shower, clean clothes?”
Next, the staff does a basic intake to assess education levels, legal issues and behavioral or substance-abuse problems. A nurse practitioner from AtlantiCare comes twice a week for medical needs.
“Sometimes they just need a few nights until they can hook up with family,” Williams said. “Or they have a job but need to save some money to afford an apartment.”
Others have more long-term issues and may stay for months. Covenant House will help them complete a high school diploma, enroll in a training program or try to find a job. Some get mental health or drug counseling. An on-staff lawyer handles their legal needs.
“Most are family-law issues,” attorney Lennon Moore said. “Or they miss court because they don’t have a home address where they can get mail.”
Site coordinator Michelle Porcaro, of Linwood, said most of their residents have had trauma in their lives, and some can be difficult to help. They don’t trust people and are angry. She said they try to keep the door open to those who leave, because they’ve had so many doors shut on them already.
“We try not to ever kick anyone out,” Nelson said. “But sometimes we have to. It’s tough.”
Nick Jones, 20, of Lindenwold, Camden County, spent last summer at the Atlantic City center. His aunt found a job for him in Indiana, but when work slowed down and he was laid off, he returned to Atlantic City. He said he would like to live close to his family, even if he can’t live with them.
Williams said a big problem is the loss of jobs in Atlantic City, which means experienced workers are competing for the same jobs as the homeless teens. She said a few businesses are working with them to help train the residents. Finding funding for those who would like to finish their high school diploma or get job training is a challenge. Nelson said he would like to develop a scholarship program to help pay for training programs.
Williams said volunteer groups come in and help out, typically around holidays, but they always can use more funding and more volunteers. Right now, she would love a few people willing to spend time with young mothers.
“These are girls who really have no parenting skills or role models,” she said. The site keeps a small room with diapers, formula and baby items for the young moms.
In November, Covenant House sponsored a “sleep out” to raise awareness of what life is like on the streets. The event raised more than $100,000. Another one is planned for March 12.
Siniari said he is proud of all the young people Covenant House has helped and wishes the public could see the long-term impact the program can have.
Jennifer Perry, 37, of Camden, said she is a success story. The resident of Covenant House in the late 1990s came to Atlantic City after leaving a home where she was told she was dumb and worthless.
The birth of a daughter convinced her to make more of her life, and today she is a nurse at Cooper University Hospital, working toward a master’s degree, she said, to prove to herself that she isn’t dumb.
“I ran away from home, then ran out of places to run to,” she said. “The people here taught me how to get a job and keep a job. They were the one consistent thing in my life that helped me survive.”
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