I had a picture of what a homeless teenager looked like in my mind’s eye. I’ll confess, I imagined a rough and tumble youngster made coarse by their tough circumstances.
Then, I began volunteering at Covenant House Georgia, a service organization which serves the estimated 500 homeless teens who roam the streets of Atlanta on any given night.
I learned very quickly that the picture I envisioned could not have been further from the truth. The homeless youth I met at Covenant House are children, about the same age as mine: sweet, wide-eyed, and huggable with an innocence that belies what they’ve witnessed in their childhood and on the streets.
Their journey isn’t what you’d expect. They aren’t teen runaways or troublemakers. They are sweet kids who have been neglected, shunned or abused by their families. They are foster care kids, who gave up after being shuttled from one family to the next or got kicked out when government checks stopped going to their foster parents.
They are teens who, because they self-identify as gay, bi or transsexual were forced out of their homes. They are children of extreme poverty and neglect, living in unstable circumstances, that finally became so tenuous they found themselves in a car or on the street.
What’s terrifying is that within days of living on the street, the vast majority are either lured into the sex trade or — in despair — give away their bodies for a place to stay the night.
My experience as an occasional volunteer leads me to do something relatively foolish but wildly rewarding every November. Understand, I live in Atlanta and despite being known for its temperate climate; November is rarely sunny weather in my hometown. My foolhardy act is to willingly sleep out on the streets to raise money for our local Covenant House.
On this night, not only am I joined by several dozen of Atlanta’s top executives, but hundreds of other leaders at Covenant Houses across the country and in Canada all join together and sleep outdoors to raise funds. We find each other on social media using the hashtag #CHSleepout and compare stories.
The night we slept out, it was cold, damp and the ground was soggy from a torrential downpour the night before. We had cardboard boxes to shield ourselves from the hard ground and sleeping bags – more than many homeless kids have when they are out on the streets. Nobody preyed on us, offering drugs or demanding sex in exchange for a warm bed.
Instead, I had my husband by my side and many of my friends. We had a fire and knew we were secure. Yet, I hardly slept, imagining what the experience would be like if I’d been kicked out of my home or found myself young, afraid, alone and on the city streets.
I woke up sore, chilled all the way to my bones and muddled through my next day’s meetings. Together, my husband and I raised over $30,000 for our local chapter. As a group we raised $325,000 which will be used to provide beds, clothes food, health services – physical and mental, educational training and job placement services.
This year, I devoted my sleep-out to a sweet young woman, Rashaunda. She was outdoors, on her own, without a home for a full 240 nights. “I never thought I’d find myself homeless” she told me. Rashaunda’s journey is not unique.
Shuttled from one foster care home to another, she had no place to go when she aged out of the system. She’s sweet, innocent with fierce hopes and dreams for the future, even though her education was interrupted and she has no place to call home. At the very least, she is now safe, warm and Covenant House Georgia is providing her the services and support she needs.
About the author: Danica Kombol runs the Everywhere Agency, a leading social media marketing firm with offices in Atlanta and Seattle. Danica is still raising funds to support Covenant House Georgia. If you’d like to contribute to her fundraising page, click here.