A warm, safe, comfortable bed is a luxury many take for granted.
Homeless youth don’t have that option and for one night every year, neither does Jeff Rumley.
The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Vice President and General Counsel has slept outside on the cold, hard ground for the past two years as part of Covenant House’s Sleep Out to Support Homeless Youth. More than 70 Detroit business leaders recently took part in the event, which puts participants in the shoes of homeless kids in Detroit and across the country by experiencing a night spent outside with only a cardboard box and sleeping bag coat for shelter.
Rumley is quick to point out that his one night spent in the elements doesn’t compare to the constant, daily stress faced by homeless youth.
“When you’re sleeping out there, you know it’s for a finite period of time … and you may be cold and miserable, but it’s going to end and you know that in the morning there’s going to be coffee and there’s going to be food and you’re going to get in your car and you’re going to go home,” he said.
The real picture is a “frightening proposition” for the more than 5,000 kids who sleep on Michigan streets on any given night, according to Rumley. He sits on the board of directors for Covenant House, a faith-based organization that provides shelter, educational and vocational programs for at-risk youth ages 18-22. This year’s sleep out raised more than $343,000 to continue the work of the organization.
Imagining the desperation of kids with no place else to go, who could be sick, hungry, cold, wet, even suffering from frostbite during the worst parts of a Michigan winter is incredibly hard. Rumley said many of the kids that Covenant House serves simply ran out of options. Their families split up and the relatives they turned to either couldn’t or wouldn’t take them in. Circumstances such as abuse, the family house being foreclosed on or a parent dying often mean the difference between a home and the streets. Add in a lack of employment skills and it’s easy to see how an already thin line can break. Under the right circumstances, Rumley said this could happen to anyone.
“These are not kids who chose to go this way,” he said. “This whole concept of being homeless and living on the street is very real and people just don’t appreciate it because (they) have a family.”
Covenant House relies on an outreach team to find kids in the Detroit area experiencing homelessness. Each teen has an individual action plan, working first through the basics such as addressing any medical or psychiatric issues and acquiring food and clothing. A Rights of Passage program helps enrollees finish high school, find employment, enroll in college, and eventually find safe, permanent housing.
Rumley said the success stories are countless. At the sleep out, executives had a chance to meet some of the kids staying at the shelter and to hear their stories.
“The one thing that is absolutely clear is how appreciative they are of having a chance to have some semblancy of normal,” he said. “You don’t know what it means to appreciate something until you hear the ‘thanks’ that comes from these kids. They can’t say it enough.”
If you’d like to help Covenant House, Rumley said donations of money, clothes, or time are always welcome.
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Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões