"The least interesting thing about them is that they're homeless."
The youth that populate the Covenant House, a safe haven for children, teens and young adults on 41st Street and 10th Avenue, can be described in many other ways: Funny. Driven. Smart. Kind. Generous. Hopeful.
"Homeless," however, is part of their profile — but, at the Covenant House, they are encouraged to not let that aspect of their story define them.
As Broadway stars walked into the Covenant House in Hell's Kitchen for the third annual Sleep Out: Broadway Edition, they were asked to become "Noticers." Instead of telling the teens that everything would be "okay," they were encouraged to simply notice — acknowledge their fears, accept their dreams and learn about their past. "What's eye-opening to me is that they continue to strive for more even than when they were homeless," said Stephanie J. Block, a member of the Broadway Sleep Out's executive committee, at 1:15 AM. She reflected with over 50 other members from the Broadway community, who were laying down their piece of cardboard and sleeping bag to prep for a night on the streets — sleeping in solidarity with the countless homeless youth that make up New York City.
"I want to say were homeless because once they're under the roof of Covenant House, to me, they do have a safe place, people that love them, and it may only be temporary or until they age out, but for that moment they are safe and secure," she added. "But, when they were homeless, sleeping on a park bench, [they still wanted] to get their GED. So having to wake up, having to figure out: How do I get clean? Getting their homework done, showing up to school… Can you imagine still maintaining that sort of active life and participating in life, but having no place to go at the end of the day? We do this [Sleep Out], and then we go home, and we take a clean shower — maybe hopefully catch a nap — but for them it's this unending cycle. When you don't see the light at the end of the tunnel, how do you continue to wake up every day and still go to work, or still go to school? That sort of self-discipline is… it baffles me."
The youth of the Covenant House greeted members of the Broadway community when they came to the center Aug. 17, a Monday night off from their Broadway shows, to sleep on the streets and raise awareness of homelessness in NYC.
Not only did the children share their stories, but they asked Broadway to reveal a part of themselves. Teens asked questions such as: How do you keep yourself motivated? Have you ever felt alone? How do you fix that? Do you have a bad relationship with your parents? If so, what do you do?
"I think how incredibly motivated they are and how big their dreams are is just so inspiring," said Lilli Cooper as she cuddled up on a concrete corner next to her father, Chuck Cooper. "I was sitting there and talking to them and thinking [to myself], 'You're doing this [for] charity,' but when you come here, you realize how inspirational and incredible and motivated these kids are. What they have really inspires you, and I didn't know it, but I'm going to walk away from this with so much more than I did walking in."
After Broadway's best learned about the kids, the Covenant House and what they have to offer, they played theatre games with the teens — most of the youth at Covenant House are extremely artistic and are searching for ways to express themselves. Throughout the year, they work with Broadway professionals in theatre and dance workshops.
Actors including Tony nominees Laura Osnes, Stephanie J. Block and Elizabeth A. Davis, On the Town's Jay Armstrong Johnson, Wicked's Cooper, Bring It On's Adrienne Warren and dozens more were improvising scenes at settings such as Starbucks with youth who admire their work on Broadway and beyond.
"I learned that this is much more than just a shelter," said Ashley Loren, seen in the recent Broadway revival of Jekyll & Hyde. "I didn't know that coming in. I knew it was more than a shelter because of what Jeff [Calhoun] has always told us about it — that it's a magical special place — but I think that seeing it firsthand and hearing from the children whose lives have been completely… They've been given the tools to change their own lives and given that family that maybe they never had before."
Tony-nominated director Calhoun is also on the executive board alongside his Newsies cast member Capathia Jenkins, one of the first members from the Broadway community to experience the magic of Covenant House.
"Capathia inspired me, she got me here, and then the kids actually inspired me," said Calhoun in his pajamas, getting ready for his third time sleeping out. "Just imagine those of us that are blessed, how much we have, and the kids have nothing. How can I be happy feeling I have everything, until these kids have something? It just felt like a responsibility… Years ago, [if] someone had said what I'm the most proud of, I probably would have named off my shows, and now it's my work with the Covenant House that makes me every bit as proud as my favorite show that I've ever directed."
Calhoun is so passionate about the cause that he visits Covenant Houses around the world, including in Latin America. And, he's come home with tokens of their appreciation, including hand-made bracelets and necklaces to thank him for his support, time and love.
Somewhere between midnight and 1 AM, Broadway hit the streets for some rest, and the first-timers began to realize the hardships these teens and young adults face on a daily basis.
Warren, Osnes and Loren were having a slumber party of their own. "I was just saying to Laura," Warren said, "going to sleep [here], we have the comfort of each other and our friends next to us and a security guard right there, but if you're a female [or] even a male, going to sleep at night, you can't wear shorts going to bed. It's hot. You can't do that as a female. You have to protect your body, so you have to figure out a way to protect yourself and try to get some rest. It's impossible."
Osnes added, "I just mentioned it — going to the bathroom… Someone told a story about not wanting to take water from somebody [when they were homeless] because then they knew they would have to go to the bathroom, and they didn’t know where they were going to do that. To have to think about that is like, 'What?' Mind blowing."
At 4 AM, it started raining. It was not just a light rain, but a downpour. In fact, at around 4:30 AM, every cell phone outside began to go off with a "Flash Flood Warning." Although the Broadway community was scheduled to wake up at 5:45 AM, they were off to an early start — after all, homeless people can't dictate nature's alarm clock.
Despite the rain and the uncomforts of the outdoors, Broadway keeps coming back.
"I don't know if you've golfed," said Calhoun, "but if you have one good shot in a round of golf, that's what keeps you coming back because you think, 'Well, if I did it once…' It's the same thing here. You see one success story, and it's worth fighting through maybe another 20 that are not success stories. That's what keeps you coming back, that one success story. It's amazing."
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)