Helping Youth Cope with COVID-19 Crisis
In the heart of Detroit and around the world, news about the COVID-19 public health emergency is updated minute by minute. New stats (about 210,000 cases across 169 countries*), reveal the virus’ spread and the toll it’s taking in human health and national economies. The picture is at once dire, engrossing, and deeply distressing.
So, when one house manager at Covenant House Michigan (CHM) noticed her young residents glued to the bitter news on the television, she decreed, “That’s it! Everybody up!” She switched off the TV and scrolled through her phone until she found what she was looking for: dance music. “C’mon,” she said. “Let’s have a dance contest!”
She didn’t have to say it twice. The youth danced and laughed and had fun. It was just what they needed to take a break from the stress of the news of coronavirus.
The COVID-19 emergency has shaken up the daily routines of both youth and staff at Covenant House and added a new layer of tension to young people working hard to overcome the trauma of homelessness. At CHM, staff are helping youth navigate the uncertainties of the crisis. “We’re finding our way through all this,” said Gerry Piro, executive director of CHM’s two campuses, in Detroit and Grand Rapids.
On a normal day, not a coronavirus day, the youth in the transitional living program would be out working, and those in the crisis shelter would be working, studying, or attending CHM programs. But since COVID-19, most of their jobs in the casinos and restaurants have closed, and the youth spend all day on campus.
“If they’ve been able to continue working, they worry how much longer they’ll have a job. They worry they’ll get sick. They worry, like all of us, about how long this pandemic will last,” Gerry said. “Their biggest worry is they’ll be exiled from Covenant House.”
At a recent house meeting, a youth raised the question. “If I get sick, CHM will have to put me out, and I have nowhere to go,” he said. When 65 pairs of eyes turned to Gerry for an answer, he responded, “I promise you that will never happen. If you do have to leave [to be hospitalized, for example] we’ll make sure you’re secure.”
Covenant House Michigan staff encourage the young people to remain on campus and endeavor to keep them busy and their minds occupied. While Michigan schools are closed due to COVID-19, students can continue their studies online with Covenant House Academy, an alternative charter school built on the Covenant House approach of unconditional love and absolute respect.
Social workers are available to the youth for therapy, and staff engage them in rounds of UNO and other card games. They encourage them to laugh, read, and keep in touch with their friends by phone.
And the youth come up with their own ways of coping with the COVID-19 crisis. “Shouldn’t we be praying?” one young person asked a resident advisor. That very day, they set up a prayer service to pray for people everywhere whose lives have been upended by COVID-19. Actually, to preserve social distancing, they set up one service in each of two residences.
*According to the World Health Organization, March 20, 2020.