This post was written by Rekha Grennan, Director Corporate Affairs —
Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy at Cisco
I awoke in the middle of the night, exhausted and frozen. The cold rising up through the concrete had permeated every inch of my stiff, sore body. I was fully encapsulated but my shoes and my belongings were outside my sleeping bag. It occurred to me that this would never have happened on the street. Every valuable, shoes included, would have been inside my sleeping bag with me – and even then, would they, would I have been safe? I thought of the young people I met earlier in the evening. I could now grasp the fear and misery they may have felt at one time, on a very visceral level.
Last Thursday night, I was one of 55 Cisco colleagues from NY, NJ, MA, and NC who slept out in 38-degree weather with a bone cutting wind chill. We each committed to raising $5000 and awareness by sleeping outside in a sleeping bag, with only a cardboard box and trash bag for insulation – all in solidarity with homeless youth. Together, we raised over $259,000 for Covenant House and we are still going. Overall, the 225 participants of Sleep Out NY raised over $1.6 million for homeless youth. Cisco was the largest team and the #1 fundraiser that night.
I have worked in the Corporate Social Responsibility space for quite some time. Part of my work is to “get proximate,” as Bryan Stevenson put it, to better work with our partners and understand the people they serve. By understanding our beneficiaries’ needs and experiences, I can more effectively support our partners and advocate for their needs and their work. I’ve gotten “proximate” in many places all over the world, but never came away feeling as vulnerable as I did when I spent the night sleeping outdoors imagining a homeless existence. Covenant House gave me an opportunity to gain first-hand insight so that when I talk about the needs of homeless youth, it is no longer abstract. I can be a more effective advocate on their behalf.
Each year in the United States, more than 4.2 million young people experience a form of homelessness. Every night in NYC, there are approximately 4,600 youth under 25 experiencing homelessness. For the first time in a decade the number of homeless youth has stabilized in NYC from 2018-2019, but the numbers are still staggering. Low living-wages contribute to the problem: youth in households making less than $24,000 a year have a 162% higher risk of homelessness. LGBTQ youth have a 120% higher risk of homelessness than their straight peers, and 46% of youth facing homelessness are fleeing violence at home. Young people who age out of foster care are also at risk.
Covenant House is the largest youth homeless service provider in New York City. On any given night up to 286 young people can sleep in a Covenant House New York bed – in a crisis care shelter, transitional living program, mother and child program, or safe house for victims of trafficking. While Covenant House New York is at capacity on most nights, intake staff work with youth to help them find a safe place to sleep, whether at a different shelter or with a friend or family member, until there is an open bed. Their model is working: in New York, 38% of young people leaving Covenant House Crisis Care exit to stable housing, and 74% of those leaving Covenant House’s long term transitional-housing program Rights of Passage exit to stable housing.
Covenant House is more than just a shelter. Their mission is to help each young person find safety and refuge from the dangers of living on the streets. They do this through compassion, unconditional love and absolute respect. In addition to addressing the immediate needs of young people – a warm shower, a hot meal, a bed to sleep in – they offer long-term support including education, legal counseling, mental and physical healthcare, and employment services. Young people are always welcome back to Covenant House, and many do return for multiple stays. On-site services are always available to former residents.
The young people who shared their stories with us during Sleep Out NY were full of exuberance, humor, and gratitude – but most importantly, hope. Their stories were difficult to hear, since they all came with a backdrop of fear and predation. When asked about dreams for the future – their answers were human and relatable – to be happy, to be self-sufficient, and to have a loving family of their own one day. They spoke candidly and courageously as they reflected not only on their journey, but also of the encouragement, sense of self-worth and confidence they received from the staff at “The Cov.”
A series of nationwide Sleep Outs will occur on November 22, 2019 as part of Covenant House International’s Sleep Out America initiative. In San Jose, 89 participants are currently registered to raise funds and Sleep Out including: Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, Chief People Officer Francine Katsoudas and a bevy of Executive Leadership and Senior Leadership team members. Another 400+ Cisco colleagues will be Sleeping Out in 14 more cities across the country – rain or shine, sleet or snow – in solidarity with homeless youth. As with many amazing company-wide efforts, this one started with one passionate and dedicated employee, the New York team Captain, Leah Rayburn.
In 2014, Leah was a new employee who joined her first Sleep Out in hopes of supporting a good cause and meeting like-minded colleagues. She came away impassioned. Leah has since volunteered at Covenant House on a monthly basis and led 8 more Sleep Out teams in NYC (Executive and Young Professional events) raising more than $194,000.
Sleep Outs provide a window into the daily hardships of millions of young people. Please consider participating and getting proximate to the challenge of homelessness. If you plan to Sleep Out on Thursday, thank you, that is step one. I hope you will then talk about your experience with everyone who will listen. We think we know the issues because some of it is visible, but like many challenges, this one is an iceberg. The long-term solutions to homelessness are enormously complicated and require grassroots community level engagement in San Jose, New York and everywhere in between.
As individuals, it can be intimidating to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, but through experiences like these we can also feel empowered to learn and engage on behalf of those who need others to raise their voices – in all of our communities. Over the holidays, I will volunteer with my family and continue to use my voice to help others. What will you do after you Sleep Out?