By Sophie Trist
For the second year in a row, I was honored to participate in the annual Sleep Out for Covenant House. Two hundred and thirty sleepers raised over $623,000! With the support of my family and friends, I raised $6,000 for the homeless youth of my city. Every year, the Sleep Out raises more awareness, more funds, and more loving support for our young people. Everyone who slept on Rampart Street sends a message to the world that these young people are precious and worthy of our love and respect, and that we must do better by them.
As always, the Sleep Out began with a brief tour of Covenant House. Staff members explained a resident’s traditional progression through the Crisis Center, Rights of Passage (transitional housing), and finally, to independent living. Once again, I was struck by the fact that Covenant House isn’t a factory with a one-size-fits-all approach for helping homeless youth. The staff take time to listen to each resident’s unique story and help each young person develop an individualized plan of care. The residents of Covenant House are not just statistics. Though many of our young people are survivors of trauma, addiction, and abuse, Executive Director Jim Kelly stressed that their greatest commonality is that they are good, they are beautiful, and they are brave.
The most impactful part of the night was, as always, the young people’s stories. We heard from a young resident who survived the horrors of sex trafficking. We heard from another girl who was kicked out of her home as a teenager and lives with PTSD after being the victim of a violent crime. One young man who had lived at Covenant House for only a couple of weeks told us that he had just been released from jail. After the keynote addresses, we divided into small groups, where we had the opportunity to interact with youth and staff members in more intimate, informal settings. This too was an extremely powerful experience, as it allowed us to go beyond a speech or lecture and have a deep, genuine conversation. Pope Francis stresses the importance of a culture of encounter and conversation. Christ calls us to leave our comfort zones and go to the margins to encounter the other, casting aside prejudices and assumptions to accept people as they are. The Sleep Out is a huge part of creating that culture of encounter and conversation.
After the small group discussions, we gathered in the courtyard and held candles as a young woman sang. Nothing brings people together like music. As we listened to her sing, I felt closer to my fellow sleepers, to the young people and staff of Covenant House, and also to God. My heart soared as I thought of the divine love and grace that brought us all to this moment of shared human connection. The grace that I felt during the Sleep Out transcends time, place, age, class, and all other barriers. For those few hours, business people, civic leaders, young people struggling with homelessness and addiction, and college students like me got right to the core of the shared grace and goodness that makes us all human.
As I curled up in my sleeping bag, on my cardboard box covered with the names of all my wonderful donors, I found myself reflecting on a quote attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. He urges us to “Go and set the world on fire!” The Covenant House Sleep Out does just that. Participating for the past two years has increased my passion for social justice, for fighting not for the marginalized, but with them. Spending one night on a cardboard box on a street guarded by four police officers is not pretending to be homeless, but it is an act of solidarity. It is us saying, we believe in you and we are here with you. It is us saying, you are worthy of the same love, respect, and grace as anyone else. The grace received is unmerited and unconditional. Covenant House practices this beautiful grace every single day, and the two hundred and thirty women and men who slept out for New Orleans’s most vulnerable youth got a glimpse of this grace on this special night.