In an age of COVID and mental health challenges, a partnership that produces results
For more than two decades, Covenant House Pennsylvania — part of the Covenant House International Network — has been laser-focused on the issue of homelessness among young adults ages 16-22, offering an array of services designed to get young people into more stable situations. (During its 2021 fiscal year, it provided more than 20,050 nights of housing to youth facing homelessness.) One of its biggest partners in that effort? SI member SEER Interactive, the digital agency led by founder Wil Reynolds. Here, Covenant House Pennsylvania executive director Jen Weikert answers five questions about the organization’s mission, impact, and relationship with SEER.
How do you describe Covenant House’s work?
Our mission is to eliminate homelessness for young adults. In Pennsylvania, that takes on particular importance because here in Philadelphia, we’re in America’s poorest big city. We have a lack of affordable housing, and we have a lot of young adults who have faced a lot of trauma. Our goal is to help these young people through a continuum of services. That could be meeting a young homeless person on the street who needs support; it might be sheltering someone; it could be helping them through our transitional housing program.
Did your work change much during the pandemic?
The pandemic was an opportunity for Covenant House, because it forced us to be really innovative in what we do and how we do it. But it also put unique pressures on us because many young people had to quarantine with us, so we became almost like a quasi-healthcare facility. Even today we have four young people with COVID who are living in our shelter. It has been a constant for now two years-plus.
Most of our young people having been staying in our shelter longer than they did before the pandemic because we’ve seen a lot of the systems that we typically referred young people to for long-term health not be as available or responsive. So we’ve had people stay longer. And that’s actually a positive indicator, because historically Covenant House has seen that the longer you’re with us, the better your long-term outcome will be.
What brings young people to Covenant House?
About 30 percent of our intakes are young people who identity as LGBTQ+. Sometimes, when people are coming out or exploring their sexuality or their identity, families are not supportive, and so that can create a homeless situation. We also have an epidemic of mental health in this community right now.
Often people will say to me, what do you do services-wise at Covenant House? And I’ll respond that every single person who’s coming to us has their own story and will need their own customized service plan. So it really depends on the person. But I think the under-arching theme is poverty and trauma, which speaks to the fact that we’re doing our work in Philadelphia.
How did you develop your partnership with SEER?
SEER Interactive has been a longtime philanthropic partner of Covenant House PA through Wil Reynolds, who’s really been inspired by the Covenant House mission, particularly by an event we have every fall called the Sleep Out. That’s a night when our community of supporters and advocates come together and sleep outside in solidarity with our youth, and prior to the event raises funds. Sleepout revenue is close to a million dollars per year, and it provides us with a significant source of unrestricted support for us to operate.
What I love about Wil is that he has an entrepreneurial spirit. He’s an incredibly down-to-earth, kind person. He’s a great thought partner for me. I have called him over the course of these very challenging times—and there have been many during the pandemic—to get support and advice and say, how do you think I should handle this? And I’m very grateful to him.
I think that SEER and Wil are examples of what a really authentic partnership is between a nonprofit and a for-profit. Often Wil says, “I want to do this thing. Would it help you?” And I appreciate the “Will it help you?” part of that question. I love that he is asking that question and that everything he wants to implement he wants to be impactful. That’s really meaningful to me.
What’s one thing Covenant House is focused on next?
We have a mental health crisis among young people in this country, and it continues to play out in a multitude of ways. And unfortunately the shooting in Uvalde last month is an example of that. We have a whole band of human beings that are feeling lost and angry and frustrated, and many of them come to Covenant House. Whereas we used to just be a place to put your head down when you didn’t have a place to live, what we also need to do now is get you stable and healthy in the short time we have with you. And that’s a whole different set of mandates than just being a shelter.