“I never knew really what it meant for me to give back, where I get more out of it than I can ever give…until Covenant House.”
Capathia Jenkins spoke for us all. The Broadway community raised over $230,000 this year for New York City’s homeless youth, but the amount was incomparable to the amount of hearts that were filled and minds that were changed on the hot concrete at 41st Street and Tenth Avenue.
Once a year, the Broadway community rallies together to sleep outside in solidarity with the city’s homeless youth. The young adults, however, stay inside; they’ve been gifted shelter by Covenant House, the organization striving to get as many of them off the streets as possible, provide them with love and support and steps to obtaining a job and home.
Some of the young adults are performers themselves—after all, as visitors are told, “the least interesting part about them is that they’re homeless.” So when Broadway comes to visit, it’s one of the most exciting nights of the year. The young adults can’t believe that artists have taken their night off from Broadway to sleep outside and show that they care. (After all, we’re only provided with a cardboard box and sleeping bag—no pillow—for a night on the city streets; luckily, though, there’s all-night access to a bathroom.)
As Adrienne Warren put it, “There’s no line” separating us from them. “Last year, I recognized a girl who I basically saw almost every week—just in life, just around the city—and I had no idea she was homeless,” Warren explained. “I recognized her picture here.”
The actress, who returned for her second Sleep Out—this year with her Shuffle Along co-stars, including a very pregnant (but very impassioned) Audra McDonald—was changed by the people she learned about last year, realizing that nothing separates the Broadway community and those at Covenant House except our circumstance.
This year, before turning in for the night, Warren looked up to the Covenant House and saw a girl with whom she worked with at the organization’s weekend-long performing festival, Crossing Brides. She held a sign up that read, “I love you. Thank you.”
“It puts a face to the cause, and all of a sudden,” Warren said, “that cause is a heartbeat. All of a sudden, a cause is a life of someone you do actually care about. I haven’t seen that girl since we worked at Crossing Bridges, and yet now, she’s the only thing I can think about.”
Throughout the night, the Broadway community had met the homeless youth, toured the Covenant House, changed into their pajamas, brushed their teeth and went outside into the space’s parking lot—our bedroom for the evening. Though we only had the concrete to keep us warm—not that we needed to be kept warm in 90-degree weather—sleepers were protected by security and had constant access to the bathroom and snacks, simple privileges that homeless people are not afforded.
In true Broadway fashion, when words are simply not enough, we sing—to be heard, to make change, to feel, to communicate, to engage, to share, to love. An impromptu performance of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” happened sometime around midnight; the Broadway community sang their new friends to sleep, expressing that, no matter what, our hearts will remain open and that—despite their unfortunate circumstance—they are loved.
“As cheesy as it sounds,” said Stephanie J. Block, “we sang a song—80 people strong, and we have kids looking out of their windows with ‘I love you’ signs out there. They just feel loved and noticed and appreciated, and you can’t put a price on that.”
Though it almost feels like a slumber party, with some of Broadway’s best bonding over intimate conversation and card games, it begins to sink in when your body gives in around 2 AM. The ground is hot. The concrete is hard. The air is heavy. The noise is loud. The bugs are biting. You cannot get comfortable.
Some sleep—for minutes at a time. Some stare into space to pass the time. And, it slowly sinks in that one night out on the streets is nothing compared to what homeless youth must face every single day until they find shelter—if they’re lucky.
Last year, “It down-poured at like three in the morning,” Lilli Cooper recalled, “so we didn’t really have the chance to sleep on the street for more than a few hours. But, this year, we were there for six-seven hours, and I felt the impact on my body, which I didn’t feel last year. That is something that was really eye-opening that was a new experience for me—how physically painful it actually is.”
But, Broadway continues to return, especially the event’s executive committee, made up of Stephanie J. Block, Jeff Calhoun, Darius de Haas, Capathia Jenkins and Audra McDonald. McDonald stayed until nearly midnight, just before everyone took to the street—announcing the evening’s totals, meeting with the youth and supporting the community.
It was Jenkins who rallied the troops a few years back and got everyone involved with the Covenant House, after she sang in a concert event for the organization.
“It was a gig,” she recalled. “I was in the green room with the kids talking, and they were [saying], ‘I can’t believe you’re a Broadway star and talking to us!’ I was like, ‘I love talking to you guys.’ … So that’s how I got involved, and I just kept doing concerts, and then Kevin Ryan, the president of Covenant House, wrote me a letter asking me if I’d consider joining the Board of Directors. I was sort of like, ‘What? Huh?’
“For me, my knowledge of a board is corporate men in suits who write checks. I said to Kevin, ‘I know I look like a million dollars onstage, but I’m not rolling like that.’ He said, ‘We’ve seen you with the kids. We know they gravitate towards you and them. We need your heart on the board—your heart and soul—and quite frankly, we need diversity on our board.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I can do that all day—just be myself.’ That’s an easy thing to do. And it just bust my heart wide open.”
Before the night ended, one of the teens shared her story. After being kicked out of her house, she found Covenant House. She graduated high school. She got a scholarship to college. She wants a career in television.
McDonald yelled from the corner of the room: “Well, just be yourself.”
“From the first kid’s story, I was hooked,” said Calhoun, a frequent visitor to Covenant House locations around the world. “It’s infectious.”
To learn more about Covenant House, visit CovenantHouse.org.