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Thirty Years of Serving Homeless Young People

By Cindy Schutt

1982 was the heyday of Fort Lauderdale's wild and crazy Spring Break, when thousands of young people streamed to Fort Lauderdale beach from all over the country to sample the fun and festivities. Unfortunately, after the party was over, many kids weren't able to get back home and ended up on the streets.

To stem the tide of a growing number of homeless young people, Fort Lauderdale community leaders Judge Estella Moriarty and Joseph Sciortino reached out to Covenant House International in the hopes of opening a Covenant House program near Fort Lauderdale Beach. Their efforts paid off in 1983 when Covenant House Florida was incorporated in Fort Lauderdale. Local citizens stepped up to help by holding fundraisers to purchase the Sand Castle Motel on Breakers Avenue, ultimately to become the Covenant House Florida crisis shelter.

Under the leadership of founding executive director Nancy Lee Matthews, Covenant House Florida opened its doors two years later on September 24, 1985, and has provided emergency shelter and crisis services to homeless youth and young adults, including teen parents and their babies, ever since.

By the end of the '80s and early '90s, as the raucous Spring Break was tamped down by city leaders who were fed up with 370,000 students converging on the beach each year, the face of the young people seeking shelter at Covenant House Florida changed. Instead of out-of-towners, many who only needed a bus ticket home, the shelter began serving more local kids- young people who were neglected, trafficked, abused or who had simply lost their way. While the face of the young people changed, the numbers of kids seeking shelter remained the same.

To address the needs of this vulnerable population, Covenant House Florida expanded its services to offer a variety of on-site programs, in addition to the staple services of shelter and meals. G.E.D classes were offered to assist older youth in attaining high school equivalency certification. The Covenant House Addictions Management Project (CHAMP) was launched to help residents with drug and alcohol problems. The long-term transitional living program, Rights of Passage, was started to help the youth who were almost ready to strike out on their own. And an outreach program began to find homeless kids and bring them to safety.

The community at large recognized the importance of Covenant House Florida, and in 1991, a group of charitable young people came together to form the Young Professionals for Covenant House. This fundraising auxiliary has raised nearly two million dollars for Covenant House Florida since its inception. Covenant House Florida expanded to Central Florida in 1995 with the opening of a community service center in downtown Orlando. The need for services was great, and Covenant House Florida responded by opening a residential crisis shelter in 2000 under the leadership of Executive Director David Spellman. The community service center relocated to the shelter and both have since seen hundreds of youth seeking shelter and services.

In 2003, Covenant House Florida was operating two shelter sites offering a total of 152 beds. It was that year that James M. Gress stepped into the role of executive director, where he remains to this day. Gress had been instrumental since the very beginning, he was one of the first people hired at Covenant House Florida. He had served in various positions within the program, and was distinguished by his instrumental role in the opening of the Orlando program.

Under his leadership, the Fort Lauderdale shelter was rebuilt after extensive damage by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Gress also navigated the turbulent times during the 2009 recession facing the tough decision to reduce the total bed capacity in the crisis shelters to fewer than 100.

Gress, with the guidance of the organization's Board of Directors, continues to grow Covenant House Florida thoughtfully and strategically. The focus is to understand the challenges of homeless youth and young adults and develop programs based on their needs while securing sustainable funding to support these programs. Fort Lauderdale's CHAMP program, in partnership with Broward County Children's Services Board, and Orlando's Dove Program, supported by CareerSource Central Florida, are two successful examples of this approach.

Efforts to engage new and existing donors and the community at large have significantly ramped up over the last five years as well. In Fort Lauderdale, the Night of Broadway Stars signature gala event was launched in 2010, and the Sleep Out for Homeless Youth began in 2012. In Orlando, the Sleep Out started in 2013 and a new gala event will launch in 2016. Plus, both sites offer monthly Mission Possible! lunch and learn sessions on an ongoing basis.

While the environment in which Covenant House Florida operates continues to change and evolve, the work at the nonprofit remains essentially the same. Taking care of youth and young adults who typically come from tough situations is the overriding concern. And serving them with unconditional love is paramount.

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