Participants hold a candlelight vigil outside St. James Cathedral to honor youth who still face homelessness every night. Credit: Julia Hale

On November 15, Covenant House Illinois (CHIL) hosted its second annual Sleep Out at St. James Cathedral. Members of the community, celebrities, business leaders, and young professionals came together to raise funds and awareness for Chicago’s homeless, trafficked, and at-risk youth by sleeping outside. “Sleepers” set personal fund-raising goals ranging from $1,500 to $5,000 that were met with the help of friends, family, and colleagues. Additionally, the sleepers shared a meal and participated in activities with CHIL staff, youth, and volunteers.

Covenant House, a national organization dedicated to providing housing and supportive services to homeless, trafficked, and at-risk youth ages 18-24, came to Chicago in February 2017. The first Chicago Sleep Out was held in November 2017.

A candlelight vigil outside the cathedral honored youth who still face homelessness every night. The vigil included speeches from CHIL Executive Director Cheryl Hamilton-Hill and a formerly homeless youth who found housing with CHIL’s help; there was also a musical performance by another CHIL youth and a moment of silence for young people who have already been subjected to homelessness. According to Jenny Paveglio, the director of program implementation for Covenant House Illinois, sharing the stories and talents of youth is central to Covenant House events across the country.

“We’ll have something about who our young people are, their journey,” said Paveglio. “This one here had musical talent. Some of them will do spoken word.”

While this is Paveglio’s first Chicago Sleep Out, she’s been with Covenant House for 25 years and has attended Sleep Outs in Georgia and New York. “Any time our young person gets up there and shares their story, gives us their talent, shows who they are, they’re always spot-on brilliant,” she said. “And that’s every Covenant House event I’ve ever been to. When the youth steps up there and shares their life, it’s just a magical moment.”

Young people sharing their stories and talents, Paveglio suggests, “can help our community at large really understand what a young person goes through when they’re experiencing homelessness, and help them distill some myths that they may have, because they’re sitting at a table with someone who could be [their] daughter or son.”

“The participants walk away with a deeper understanding of who our young people are, and that’s really the point,” she adds. “Hopefully they’ll go away and say, ‘We do need to stop this, because it isn’t what I thought.'”

CHIL staff and youth participate in a painting activity hosted by the One Heart One Soul traveling art program.Credit: Julia Hale

Following the vigil, the sleepers entered the Episcopal church to share a meal and participate in breakout sessions in which they discussed with CHIL youth and staff what the word “home” really means to them. After the breakout sessions, awards were given to organizations and individuals who raised outstanding amounts of money. I talked to Jeff Berger, senior systems engineering manager at Cisco Systems and the recipient of one of those awards.

“We have 33 people that are going to be sleeping out as part of Cisco,” said Berger. “The Chicago office is part of nine cities across the entire US that are participating in the Sleep Out tonight. We have 148 sleepers across Cisco . . . and we just hit the $100,000 mark about an hour ago.” This isn’t the first year that Cisco Systems has participated in a Sleep Out, either. “We had 12 people last year, and we went to 33 [this year],” he said. “So we had a huge increase here, and we went from $22,000 last year to $100,000 this year.”

The increase in Cisco’s contribution represents the major way that this year’s Sleep Out differs from previous years: “It’s bigger,” said Nichole Lamorgese, a case manager and the longest-serving Covenant House Illinois staff member. “[Last year’s Sleep Out] was more, like, in the whispers. It wasn’t as well known. This feels like there’s more of a community around it.”

Janesta Hitchcock, a Chicago native from the Chatham area, is a Covenant House success story. A victim of domestic violence, she had just started staying at a shelter when she heard about Covenant House from other residents. “I was kind of skeptical about going,” Janesta said Thursday. “[I didn’t want to] hang around the wrong people, but they told me there were a lot of resources . . . so I started going.”

“Some days when I would leave the shelter, if I didn’t have work that day, I wouldn’t have anywhere to go, so I would come to Covenant House,” she said. “They would let me take a nap for a few hours, give me a shower, wash my clothes, feed me, let me watch some TV, and then get on the computer to look for a job if I wanted.”

“[At first] I didn’t wanna give them any information, I was just really closed-minded about the situation. But I soon realized this is a place where I could be myself, this is a few people that make me feel comfortable, they don’t want anything from me, they’re being honest with me, they’re not looking to get me into any trouble or give out my information.”

Giving CHIL her information ended up benefiting Janesta—within two months of going to Covenant House she had a home. “I found out about Covenant House in the middle of September [2017],” she said. “By this time last year, November 7th [2017], I was housed with my first apartment and I was out of the shelter.”

“[Covenant House is] all good energy,” said Janesta. “A ‘safe space,’ as they would call it.”  v