Cold night on Newark pavement raises awareness of homeless youth plight

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on March 25, 2016

More than 100 young professionals participated in a National Sleep Out campaign to raise awareness about the plight of homeless young people. Covenant House-New Jersey in Newark was one of the sites where young people came to sleep out in the parking lot.

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Saturday morning couldn't come soon enough for the millenials waking up from a restless overnight pilgrimage.

The biting wind cut into them and the 36-degree temperature  made sleeping in a Newark parking lot uncomfortable.

Underneath skies still dark at 5:30 a.m., more than 100 young professionals rose from their cardboard boxes and sleeping bags, holding onto an experience they'll never forget.

Larry Clifton Jr., a music producer from Newark, thought he could handle it, but the cold and the hard ground humbled him during the National Sleep Out campaign last week to raise awareness about homeless youth.

"I couldn't imagine doing this every day,'' said Clifton, 35.

No one should, but homeless youth in New Jersey do it night after night.  They're not thinking about tomorrow, only today – and how they're going to eat and where they'll sleep.

In a reversal of roles, Clifton and the others spent the night outside to get a snapshot of what it's like for homeless young people who are forced to huddle under boardwalks, break into abandoned buildings and roam around train stations to stay warm and off the streets.

The participants did it not only to gain an understanding, but also to raise money for Covenant House, a Newark agency that helps runaway and homeless youth rebuild their lives through job training and education.

For myriad reasons that run from parents kicking them out of the house to untenable foster care placements, many young people – 18 to 21 years old – find themselves with no place to go, until they hear about the brown building on Washington Street with a sign bearing a picture of a bird being set free.

"We put our arms around them, pat them on the back and dust them off,'' said David Hall, a program director.  "We feed them and we say, 'Despite what you've been through, tomorrow's a better day.' ''

For the past three years, Covenant House has participated in National Sleep Out in New York, where the staff camped out on the streets near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. But this year, the organization held its own sleep-out in Newark, as part of  the social movement that also took place in Anchorage, Alaska; Philadelphia; New York; Houston; Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale.

When Covenant House put the call out, more than 100 young professionals in New Jersey signed up, raising $117,000 in donations.

The words that Jim White, executive director of Covenant House, shared before participants' heads hit the pavement in the Covenant House parking lot came from the heart. "This gift you have given to us, we hold sacred,'' said White.

What participants heard next were hardly soothing bedtime stories. Instead, they were tales of struggle and resilience from young people they met that night.

Lorraine Rivera told of how her mother didn't want her when she was 8 years old. Foster homes and rejection marked her childhood, sending her into depression and a psychiatric ward.

"By the age of 16, the idea of killing myself seemed like the only way out of my pain,'' Rivera said.

And that was before four men assaulted her when she went to visit a friend, she said.

Rivera ended up homeless, wandering around Newark Penn Station, begging for food, cleaning herself up with paper towels, afraid to sleep on the streets.  

Rivera, now 20, is in a better place – Covenant House. A Job Corps training program is on her agenda and she wants to be a social worker to lighten the road for foster kids like herself.

When she finished talking, the participants stood, filling the Covenant House gymnasium with applause.

But there wasn't anything that Covenant residents or staff could do to prep the participants for a night on the blacktop. They layered up in clothing, settling along the fence after a touching candlelight service to remember the homeless.

Five hours later, rubbing what sleep they managed to get from their eyes, they were not the same.

Allison Lebo, a 27-year-old recruiter, said it was wrong  to think homeless people were responsible for their situation. 

"After hearing the stories of the kids, you realize they did nothing wrong to put themselves in this position,''  said Lebo, a Bloomfield resident. "This was a bad hand dealt to them and that could have easily been us.''

One night out there hit home for Tony Whitaker, 27, of Irvington. He thought about his family and how his gambling problem put them on the street when he lost his mother's rent money in Atlantic City.

This is why he slept out. It was a reminder to never do something that would cause him to be homeless again.

Covenant House hopes the participants in the sleep-out won't become complacent, now that a week has gone by and life is back to normal.

Mariam Rashid, a Rutgers University graduate student, can't get it out of her mind. She had driven by Covenant House many times in the past, never realizing how the place saves lives. And she certainly never expected to one day be sleeping outside in Covenant's parking lot.

"I guess it's just something that's going to be with me,'' she said.

She'll be back next year.

How many of us will hold a candle and join her?

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