Sleeping out to fight homelessness


Covenant House Missouri, a shelter for homeless youth, is hosting its third Sleep Out event where participants raise funds and spend a night sleeping out on the street

By Charlotte Beard

It’s been stated that each night, as many as 3,000 unaccompanied youth are homeless in Missouri. To help combat this problem one house is offering individuals who are not homeless to put themselves in the place of a homeless teenager by sleeping outdoors for one night. 

Covenant House Missouri, a shelter for homeless youth, is hosting its third Sleep Out: Young Professional Edition the evening of Friday, March 22 through Saturday morning. The sponsorship fundraiser to support the shelter and increase awareness of the epidemic among youth will take place on the grounds of the facility located at 2727 North Kingshighway Blvd. 

Though the Young Professional Edition is geared towards participants ages 23-40, Bridget Jones, Director of Advancement for Covenant House Missouri, shared that they try not to put too much emphasis on the age group. This edition of the sleep out aims to attract anyone just beginning their career or who are in the very early years of their career and not able to raise $5,000 or more (the Executive Edition) but can raise $1,000. The latter is believed to be achievable with the help of the volunteer events coordinator and usage of social media tactics to attract sponsors and donors.

Destinee Mentor-Richards, who moved to St. Louis in August 2018, was once part of the Associate Young Professionals Board for Covenant House in New York and participated in its sleep out geared towards those who worked in the finance industry. Mentor-Richards teamed up with co-workers and raised over $14,000. 

Mentor-Richards shared her advice for obtaining sponsors by encouraging those who desire to participate to be open and honest with themselves about why they want to be involved and then sharing it with the people they trust. 

“I think it’s always easiest for the people you trust,” stated Mentor-Richards. “Whether it be with friends or family to say, ‘Listen I’m really passionate about this because I’m passionate about providing a safety net for kids who don’t have it,’ or whatever that reason is. Be open to sharing that experience. For some people it will be deeply personal.”

The actual visual for the initiative will begin with participant check-in and time to mingle at 6:30 p.m. Friday. A tour of the facility is expected to begin at 7:30 p.m. Recognized as a provider of choice by the Youth in Need organization for their contribution to the LGBTQ community, gender identity training will be a part of Covenant House’s pre-program for the evening’s sleep out. Jones shared that 25 percent of their youth identify as being part of the LGBTQ community.

“It identifies how a lot of our youth come to us with different strengths and different needs,” stated Jones. “Through different processes based on what their individual needs are, we hope they will all get to the same place – from homelessness to hope.”

At approximately 9 p.m. the visual part of the program will take place outside at which time participants will lay out their sleeping arrangements inclusive of cardboard and sleeping bags. Also, they will build a fire before they are settled for the night.

With Covenant House existing in 31 cities across six countries, the sleep out initiative is an international effort. 

“The idea was started though our international office,” stated Jones. “It was a way to show solidarity across all Covenant House locations and the federation. Each sleep out takes place on the same night at each site. The goal was to help raise awareness of the homeless issue that’s facing youth in America. Funds raised by the Sleep Out movement keep the doors open and lights on for the homeless youth residing in all the Covenant House shelters 24/7, 365 days a year. So, it’s not a night of ‘pretend’ it’s a night of ‘visual and reflection.’ It represents solidarity with youth for experiencing homelessness.”

To date, the Young Professional Edition has raised close to $38,000 since its inception and St. Louis company participants of the C-suite executive level are responsible for the Executive Edition raising over $1 million since it began in 2012.

Jones shared, “The individuals who participate in Sleep Out really are committed to our organization. I think it helps them have a stronger connection to our organization also; they come back here year after year.”

Mentor-Richards shared, “The first time I was told about the Sleep Out my initial reaction was, ‘I don’t think I want to do this. This sounds really hard and really tough. But there is a beautiful comradery to everyone who does it together. At first you kind of have the jitters – it’s a little bit nerve-racking and a little exciting as well. But then it gets to the point where it really sits with you that for a lot of kids this is their real life. To think there are thousands more kids not only in St. Louis, but in Missouri, the U.S. and all over the world who for them this is their reality. When that hits, you start to realize it’s so much bigger than yourself and you’re able to get out of your head in a unique way.” 

The challenges for the homeless present themselves in different ways. 

“For me it hit a couple times throughout the night. I’d gotten to bed about 5 p.m. and finally drifted to sleep around 10:30 or 11. I couldn’t sleep because I kept hearing cars go by throughout the night. We had Covenant House security watching us so we knew that nothing would happen to us. But I think I woke up in the middle of the night and it hit me to imagine if it was just me by myself—I wonder what this experience would be like,” said Mentor-Richards.

The impact of the sleep out on the participants lasts longer than just one night. 

“The next day going to work after that was really a very eye-opening experience because I had the luxury of going home and taking a shower and taking a nap before I went to work. With all those luxuries I had I couldn’t focus. What if I was a kid going to school right now? What if it wasn’t just one night – it was a week? So, to anyone that is thinking about sleeping out, I would say take the plunge. Take the risk. Be willing to open yourself up to that experience. And when you do participate allow it to sit with you for a little bit. Don’t come in with any preconceived notions or any judgement of what it will be like. Be open to letting the experience happen to you. Always keep it in the context of the fact that in your position you’re still coming in with a level of privilege. So, humble yourself to that experience,” said Mentor-Richards.

On average, Sleep Out: Young Professional Edition has had 14 to 15 participants and the Executive Edition has had an average of 50 participants. Covenant House Missouri hosts one fundraiser each year under each of the editions. Sleep Out America, a country wide fundraising event, enables anyone to raise funds for a Covenant House nearest their location (visit https://sleepoutamerica.org). Jones shared that participants do not need to Sleep Out at the Covenant House location. Participants can do the event with friends, family, or a group in their backyard or in a basement if they choose. Jones added that a school group can sleep out in a gym.

Those who desire to participate in Friday’s Young Professional Edition are welcome to register online. The fundraising site will remain open for approximately a month after the Sleep Out to allow the continuing collection of funds from sponsors and donors. Visit https://www.sleepout.org/ and look up Missouri to register.

CUTLINE: PHOTOS TO COME