The Ripon Forum

Volume 54, No. 2

May 2020

A Shelter from the Storm

By on May 17, 2020


Shelter at home means one thing when you have a home. But what does it mean when you have no home, especially when you’re a young person on your own, unsure where to sleep, eat, or find refuge from the pandemic?

That is the question we face at Covenant House, where we help children and youth experiencing homelessness in 31 cities across six countries as COVID-19 loots all our lives relentlessly. 

Today, we are filled with over 2,000 infants, children, and youth who have no other place to call home. Like nearly everywhere else on earth, the virus has hit us and infected some of our kids and staff.  We have converted offices, conference rooms, and drop-in centers into isolation units at each of our houses to care for sick and symptomatic youth. In Anchorage, Alaska, for example, we converted one of our transitional homes into a quarantine residence for young people who test positive or show signs of the virus.  In Houston, we refashioned the drop-in center into isolation bedrooms. In New York City, just outside the Lincoln Tunnel, our executive director Sister Nancy Downing and our team converted their offices into bedrooms, where we now provide care to sick children and youth in one of the hardest-hit parts of the nation.

Today, we are filled with over 2,000 infants, children, and youth who have no other place to call home.

To care for the sick and prevent the spread of infection, Covenant House staff and youth need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – thousands of masks, gloves, face shields and gowns. President and Mrs. Bush quickly donated substantial funds to Covenant House in March to purchase PPEs, which we have distributed across the country to our teams.  We are closely monitoring our pantry and supply stocks, including cleaning supplies, thermometers and linens as we stretch to meet the burgeoning needs of children and youth amid the pandemic. 

I have drawn inspiration repeatedly from former Covenant House youth who now serve on the frontlines among the nation’s many hero helpers. When we first met her in Alaska, April Rayes was a victim of severe child abuse, barely a teenager and pregnant. She went on to raise her son, graduate from high school and college, then medical school. Today Dr. April Rayes works long days, attending to the sick in Washington. I heard from Tawana Ewing, too, who was discovered by an elderly couple in a Walmart parking lot at 11p.m. more than a decade ago, sobbing and cradling her two-month-old infant, without shelter. They brought her to Covenant House New Orleans, where she began to build a new life. Today Tawana has her own home, serves as a member of our Board of Directors and works round-the-clock with the poor at a health center in the Lower Ninth District, caring for COVID-19 patients.

Most young people overcoming homelessness have already suffered enormous trauma before finding Covenant House.  This health crisis is heightening that vulnerability to an unprecedented level. Many of the young people at Covenant House arrive here medically neglected and their bodies bear the scars of life on the streets.  

In New Orleans, 85 percent of our youth have lost their jobs since March 1st, and in New York City, it is closer to 90 percent.

Beyond the adverse health consequences of the virus, its economic and social implications are already wreaking particular havoc on our kids’ lives. Mass school closures are cutting a vital source of nutrition for millions of kids.  Few colleges are committing to continue housing and feeding students who don’t have a place to go, and we are serving thousands more meals each week.  Our young people are seeing their shifts cut and jobs eliminated as the service, hospitality and transportation industries confront reductions in their businesses. In New Orleans, 85 percent of our youth have lost their jobs since March 1st, and in New York City, it is closer to 90 percent.

This virus raged into our lives, armed, pummeling us into our corners. The excruciating flash of obituaries. The sickness, and the fear of it.  The great unknowing. 

We could leave it there.

And yet, the boundless, beautiful, bounty of Love is ever-present and battle-ready.

Love is restocking grocery shelves, rushing the sick to hospitals, building ventilators, helping the ill, mourning the fallen, housing the vulnerable, sewing masks, racing to find a vaccine — generously lifting the shades and turning on the lights. I see this every day across Covenant House: kitchen staff, social workers, nurses, cleaning staff, doctors coming in the front doors to accompany and care for kids during a terrifying time.

Yes, COVID-19 is fiercely testing us, and there are very tough days ahead for all of us, particularly kids confronting homelessness.  But this virus will not undo the world.  It is no match for a people united in hope and devoted to confront it in common cause.

Kevin Ryan

Kevin Ryan is the President & CEO of Covenant House. To learn more about how you can help homeless youth in America during the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit

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