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The big sleep 

Jeanie Riess on Covenant House's annual "sleepout" fundraiser

click to enlarge Covenant House is raising funds and awareness by having New Orleans leaders sleep outside to build empathy for the plight of the homeless.

Covenant House is raising funds and awareness by having New Orleans leaders sleep outside to build empathy for the plight of the homeless.

Last fall, Mark Romig spent the night outside in the Covenant House courtyard, tossing and turning atop a cardboard box. The president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation had never slept outside, except as a camper, and the night was a sleepless one. "You do manage to shut your eyes for a brief period," he says. "Maybe two hours at a time."

  Charities and nonprofits often raise money with swanky galas and wine-soaked auctions, but Covenant House wants its fundraiser to give people a more realistic perspective on the problems it addresses. The charity, which provides food, shelter and crisis management to at-risk youth in New Orleans, invited community leaders last year to sleep outside for a night, and the second annual Sleep Out is Nov. 14.

  The Sleep Out, which takes place in 13 cities across the U.S. and Canada, aims to let community leaders and local executives briefly experience a taste of life on the streets. Last year's event brought out 43 sleepers and raised $100,000. This year Covenant House hopes to sign up 100 participants and raise $150,000. As of press time, 92 people had committed to participate, including Romig, Whitney Bank President Joseph Exnicios, Covenant House Board President and New Orleans maritime attorney Patricia Krebs, Fourth District Court of Appeals Judge Madeleine Landrieu and District "C" City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer.

  Each returning sleeper is required to raise $1,000, with a goal of $2,000, and each new sleeper is required to raise $500, with a goal of $1,000.

  Exnicios, who will sleep out for the second time, points out that most people who donate money to an organization want to see where it's going. "The experience wasn't just going there and raising money and sleeping out on a bag," Exnicios says. "It's getting close to the problems Covenant House is addressing and getting a feeling for what goes on there."

  When sleepers check in, they are met by Covenant House residents who tell their personal stories during a tour of the facility. After the tour, sleepers participate in a set of roundtable discussions with Covenant House residents. That, Exnicios says, is good for the residents, too.

  "We found last year, based on responses from residents, that sitting in front of these kids encourages them," Exnicios says. "You let them know that you really care and are willing to leave the comforts of your own home to walk in their shoes.

  "These are not bad people. These are good kids."

  Krebs, who has been volunteering with Covenant House since the New Orleans branch of the charity was founded in the 1980s, says that last year's turnout of sleepers gave the home's residents a much-needed sense of self-worth, something with which many struggle as a result of abusive pasts and post-traumatic stress disorder.

  "Many of the kids have a hard time feeling any kind of sense of self-worth," she says. "When they first heard about it, they went out and cleaned (the courtyard) without anyone asking them. That evening, when they saw all the people, several said things like 'They're sleeping out here for us? All these people?' The kids got it. They understood that they were doing it for them."

  Richard Arnold, director of development and communications for Covenant House, says that last year, residents in the home stood up one by one and, completely unplanned, thanked the evening's participants.

Covenant House is an international organization, but its New Orleans branch is autonomous, Arnold says. As such it is in charge of its own fundraising (it relies on individual donations for 65 percent of its funding). It offers a complete medical checkup to every youth seeking attention, and it helps reconnect children with family members who might be able to offer asylum from dangerous or abusive situations. The charity also includes an around-the-clock trauma center.

  Many of the kids Covenant House serves have been turned out of the house for issues regarding sexual identity, or have left voluntarily because of family violence, according to Arnold, so the charity searches the country for family members who might be able to provide a safe second home. Covenant House spent $12,000 last year on bus tickets, Arnold says.

  Besides providing basic needs like food, shelter and medical care, the charity gives residents an educational or vocational assessment to help them begin the process of getting back on their feet. It provides workshops and classes on healthy relationships and general life skills to offer stability to those who have none. "It's much more than a homeless shelter," Arnold says.

  Just two years ago, Covenant House had an average of 44 kids in its care on any given night. It currently has an average of 140 a night in its care, in residence, in its crisis center or living in off-site apartments through its transitional living program. Arnold says that hike comes from an increase in need in the New Orleans area and the reinstitution of Covenant House's open-door policy, which Executive Director Jim Kelly reinstated when he took the reins of the organization two years ago.

  Though spending a single night within the security of the Covenant House courtyard likely won't replicate the true experience of homelessness, Arnold says the act is a symbol of solidarity with at-risk youth. "We have to be realistic," he says. "We can't expect people to give up their lives completely. We encourage them to make it as realistic as possible, but we leave it up to them, so some people don't use sleeping bags, others give up their cellphones. They're never really going to see it. It's more about the gesture of the event."

  The night has its moments of lightness — participants break the ice with the social game "Two truths and a lie" — but Arnold says conversation can get heavy, and there's always a chance for reflection, either in the chapel that's left open throughout the night or side-by-side with peers. He says the night is more exhilarating than it is "fun."

  This year, each sleeper will get a card with the name, photo and story of a Covenant House resident, in an effort to strengthen the connection between the symbol of sleeping outside and the individual children the event is meant to support.

  Arnold says the idea to target community and corporate leaders came from New York City's Covenant House, which started Sleep Out two years ago, and has proved a valuable way of spreading the organization's message among a group of community leaders and executives. That said, members of other demographics have expressed an interest in participating in the event, mostly students and young people. To accommodate that interest, Covenant House plans to hold another Sleep Out geared toward students and young professionals, possibly in the fall of 2014.

  "The most meaningful experience was being in the quiet of the night and physically putting your body down on the hard concrete," Romig says of his experience last year. "It's probably not even close to what they experience, but it's as close as I'll ever get." Still, the fact that Romig was able to wake up the next morning, buy a cup of coffee and go on with his day didn't take away from the experience, he says.

  "It just gives us ... a small taste of what people in our country have to go through every night."

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