Weathering the storm to protect at-risk youth during the COVID-19 pandemicThe Nonprofit Journal Project

Covenant House Michigan provides homeless, runaway and at-risk youth ages 18-24, as well as those who have aged out of foster care, with shelter, educational and vocational programs. Additional support services are offered in order to remove and overcome barriers such as homelessness, unemployment, inadequate education, violence, drugs, human trafficking, and gang activity that prevent young people from successfully transitioning into adulthood. Our goal is to redirect young people on to a path toward meaningful and successful adulthood. With our two campuses in Detroit and Grand Rapids, we are able to help homeless youth across the state.


24/7 has always been our response to every young person who has faced homelessness and turned to us for help. While the pandemic forced schools, businesses, and countless social institutions across the globe to close mandating everyone to stay home and off the streets, it compelled Covenant House Michigan, with great urgency and determination, to remain open. Covenant House Michigan was founded for emergencies—those experienced every day by young people facing homelessness.


When the stay at home order was put in place, we were in the process of planning our gala, A Night of Broadway Stars, which typically raises operating funds for our emergency shelter services. We made the decision to cancel the event and, like most of us in the non-profit sector, had to pivot to creative ways of raising money during a pandemic.


My team and I focused on individual giving knowing we had three months to raise the same amount we would have made at the event, which included not only corporate sponsors and ticket sales, but a silent auction, raffle and “Fund A Need.´ Fortunately, our corporate sponsors agreed to convert their support to unrestricted funding which gave us a head start.


We created an emergency needs campaign and began calling and talking to our donors. Private and community foundations who have supported us in the past reached out and offered us grant monies to help fund hazard pay for our front line and direct care staff, the purchase of PPE for both residents and staff and increased cleaning supplies which included a disinfectant fogging machine and a UV light system for the HVAC in all of our buildings.


Our Board of Directors dedicated a matching grant opportunity and we began to ask our donors for support through eblasts, personal phone calls, and virtual meetings. Using the packages we had secured for the gala, we conducted our popular “Keys to the City” raffle totally online with ticket purchases and a live key pull.


During our phone calls with donors, many of them would ask how our youth were handling this challenging time. Our direct care team members took care of the residents on their usual shifts, sometimes working double shifts as many of our staff fell ill. Every day, we would marvel at our direct care staff. They came to work because they love the mission and our youth. We are blessed to have them as they have truly risen to the challenge. When the daily news of the pandemic became too much for the youth, the staff turned off the television and challenged them to a dance party instead. Day by day, hour by hour, staff love and support our youth so we can all get through this challenging time together.


Donors stepped up for our youth in other ways, too. In addition to funding support, we received numerous gifts in kind at both our shelters in Detroit and Grand Rapids to help ease the burden of sheltering in place. Donors provided dinners, games, online entertainment, PPE, clothes, and hygiene items to get us through this time.


As we move into a “new normal,” our needs have only increased. It is thought because of this public health crisis, homelessness across the United States will increase beginning this summer. Youth who don’t feel safe at home may feel safer on the streets. We are absolutely committed to keeping our doors open to young people who turn to us for help, who have no one else to care for them in this time of crisis and in their time of personal crisis. They can’t stay at home because of COVID-19 if they don’t have a home.


Our funding message will need to evolve as well. While we were able to meet and exceed our funding goal for the past three months, what is the message moving forward? Our signature event, Sleep Out: Executive Edition is scheduled to take place in November. This event relies on sleepers experiencing what it means to be homeless through personal interactions with our youth, storytelling, and learning on campus. How will this work if we are still in the midst of a public health crisis? Like a lot of organizations, we want to make sure we keep our donors safe but also need to raise operational funding to help our residents.


As my team and I plan for the summer and fall, we keep in mind our donor stories of why they give to Covenant House Michigan. We are careful not to exhaust our donors with frantic messaging but need to make sure they know we are still there for our youth and need their support. It’s a fine line to walk and we are all trying to figure it out as we move forward.


Ida Benson is Director of Development & Communications for Covenant House of MichiganStay tuned for her next entry in our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19 is impacting the nonprofit sector--and how they are innovating. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.ACT.
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