Slim took a seat in a high chair at the front of the room—in front of 104 Sleep Out participants, which equaled approximately 104 famous people because this was the annual Stage and Screen edition of Sleep Out. I’d noticed Slim sitting off to the side of Pride Hall inside Covenant House as Colleen Veldt, director of peer-to-peer fundraising, introduced us to the mission of Covenant House and Kevin Ryan, President of Covenant House International, told us a story of a former resident who went on to become a guidance counselor and help other troubled youth. Slim sat, knee vibrating with energy; he had a headphone in one ear, his head was down as he breathed in and out. He was steeling himself to tell his story.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Slim came to America on a plane with his mom when he was hours old. He grew up first in North Carolina and then in and out of four of the five boroughs. (“No way I was going to Staten Island. Take a boat to school? No way,” he said.) His humor was infectious; he had the room cracking up. But Slim had held a friend who died in his arms; he had tried to support his entire extended family financially as a teenager. He couldn’t do it. After arrests, he faced homelessness. He would see strangers on the subway shaking their keys and thought, That’s the best thing in the world. Keys meant security and stability. “When I see people with keys, I want that so bad. Keys to unlock doors, your own doors,” he said. He wound up on the doorstep of Covenant House.
Two years later, Slim is about to leave Covenant House…because he’s going to college. He’s about to get those keys.
This is what Covenant House International does. In 31 cities across six countries, the shelter provides housing and programming for homeless youth (approximately ages 17–21) to get them off the streets, educate and train them for work, and create independent young adults.
I first learned about Covenant House in 2016 because of the (then-named) Broadway Sleep Out, the event where Broadway stars sleep on the street to raise money and awareness for homeless youth. Last year, I visited the Covenant House as press—producing video interviews with founders of the Broadway Sleep Out Capathia Jenkins and Stephanie J. Block. After talking to Stephanie, I knew I had to do the next one.
You see, the Sleep Out is an equalizer. If six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald can sleep on the pavement for a night, so could I.
Because of my previous coverage, I felt I knew what to expect from my first Sleep Out. Logistically: Meet and greet with dinner, hear opening presentation to learn their mission, attend breakout sessions to meet some of the youth housed at the midtown homeless shelter for young adults, fetch cardboard box, sleeping bag, and a patch of sidewalk, sleep outside. Physically: deal with potential weather, endure probable aches the next day, confront exhaustion. I prepared myself to hear stories, like Slim’s.
The Covenant House makes it clear: A Sleep Out is not an experience of homelessness. A Sleep Out is a gesture in solidarity. It’s about saying something as small as, “We know you exist, you are seen. You are supported. You are loved.” It’s about showing up. And theatre people know what it is to show up.
I showed up. I listened to four more stories from three current residents and one former resident (now on staff). Three of them had been locked out of their houses by their own parents and had endured extreme physical abuse. In all honesty, these were the kinds of difficulties I expected to hear. I was ready to bear witness. What I wasn’t ready for was how thin the line was between us, the Sleep Out crew, and them, the residents.
As Kevin Ryan said, these young people have been told over a lifetime that they are worthless, that they are unloved, that they are unwanted until they believe that’s true; their thoughts have been reprogrammed. We all have an ugly inner critic. The difference is most of us have people telling us not to give in to that voice.
The night is something strange to reconcile. We sleep outside knowing it’s only one night—or a few hours if you stay up late playing Hive Mind with Brandon Uranowitz and Team Maisel. We sleep outside knowing we have a bathroom inside and water bottles in a cooler. We sleep outside in sleeping bags, guarded by security, in a clean, rat-free parking lot. We sleep outside as a community after singing “Lean On Me” with award-winning voices ringing in our ears. None of this is akin to the foodless, bathroom-less, blanket-less, dirty, unsafe, lonely reality of living on the street—even for a single night.
Instead, we took stock of our privilege. We began to feel grateful for base needs and tiny conveniences. One woman confessed that although this was her fourth Sleep Out, this was her first on her period and WHOA, imagine being on your period and being homeless. One actor left early in the morning to go to an audition; the room went wide-eyed, impressed that she chose to Sleep Out before something important in her career—but homeless youth don’t have that choice.
True, the Sleep Out isn’t a first-hand experience. It’s a symbol and a tool.
The Sleep Out forced me and those in my social media network to confront facts about youth homelessness in America because of my fundraising goal: 1,554 Facebook friends, 1,200 Twitter and Instagram followers, and over 75 email recipients became aware of the youth homeless crisis and the work of Covenant House because I joined a Sleep Out.
Thousands of new people now know about this cause because of the network of the entertainment community. Thousands of people learned Covenant House exists. In a world where $10 pays for a full day’s meals for one kid, $25 pays for a warm winter coat, $35 pays for clean, warm bedding, and $50 pays for an outfit for a job interview, we raised nearly $400,000. Of the 104 participants, 66 were first-timers who are now hoping to volunteer or aid Covenant House in the future.
That’s what the Sleep Out is. It’s a moment of action, a symbol, a gesture, a cry, that will incite more action. In a world where we often feel helpless to do good, this is something tangible to move the needle a fraction of an inch.
Each year, 4.2 million youth experience homelessness. Covenant House International helps approximately 2,000 of those kids. Will you help one?
Click here for more information about Covenant House and how you can participate in your own DIY Sleep Out November 16, or to donate to Covenant House International.