Covenant House's Misguided Approach to Youth Work

WHAT happens to street youths if the sex, crime, and financial scandals enveloping the Rev. Bruce Ritter, founder of Covenant House, forces the organization to close down most or all of its emergency shelters in this country and abroad? City fathers of the 16 communities where the shelters are located should start addressing this question now. The first sexual-impropriety charges lodged against Fr. Ritter in December set off a sharp ``meltdown'' in public contributions to sustain Covenant House's $88 million annual budget, and the meltdown is continuing despite his resignation. The demise of the nation's largest provider of care to homeless young people, some 25,000 a year, could come soon. Every week new charges of secret funds, crime coverups, or shoddy services plague the agency.

Should Covenant House go out of business, it is unlikely that another national charity would care to pick up where Ritter left off. He ran a one-man show and flouted the rules of sound social-work practice to a degree unacceptable to other organizations.

Cities could thus find themselves left with two options: abandon youths to the streets and jails again, or try to find ways of helping them with local resources.

By Covenant House's own figures, upwards of 70 percent of the youths it tries to help are homeless young adults aged 18 and over. Many are street-hardened minority male hustlers and drug users. The remaining 30 percent are vulnerable runaway children.

Experience has shown that Ritter's insistence - however well intentioned - upon mixing younger children with mature youths and housing them in 70- to 200-bed, dormitory-style facilities located in vice-ridden downtown areas to be a mistake. Rather than way stations to a better life, the shelters have become flophouses, luring youths to the action on the street with free meals and supposedly ``safe'' beds.

A former director of the Covenant House branch in Toronto has described that shelter as a ``revolving door, a glorified soup line,'' that does little to steer troubled youths off the streets. After Ritter opened a $3.5 million, 98-bed facility in Houston in 1983, there was a noticeable increase in the number of youths on the city's ``strip,'' which police attributed to the shelter's presence.

Residents of Covenant House shelters complain that they are unsafe. Residents tell of pimps routinely hustling girls at Covenant House's doorstep, of youngsters being assaulted and wearing their clothes to bed at night for fear they will be stolen.

So if Covenant House does come tumbling down as a national agency, cities should welcome the opportunity to close their branch shelters. They should expand support for smaller, well-managed shelters away from the ``combat zones,'' that meet regulations specified in the Federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which authorizes $26 million in aid to 342 shelters for runaways around the country.

Ritter ignored these regulations, even though he received more than $5 million in federal funding to build and operate shelters - thanks to lobbying through his political connections and being singled out in President Reagan's 1985 State of the Union address as an ``unsung hero.''

The federal rules prescribe that runaways under 18 be housed in shelters with no more than 20 beds. The size and age limitations address the question of personal safety and the program's emphasis on family reunification.

In contrast to the Covenant House assembly line, at other runaway shelters youths receive individualized staff attention to help them either return to their families or find a permanent placement where they can return to school or get jobs off the street. This same approach should be applied in facilities designed for young adults over age 18.

Once Covenant House's convenient flophouses are shut down, cities probably will find that the number of youths being drawn to the sleaziest part of town and sometimes performing ``survival sex'' to support themselves will drop sharply. Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities that fought off Ritter's attempts to establish branch shelters in their ``combat zones'' now have as a result better services for runaway and homeless youths.

In contemplating a transition away from the Covenant House approach, officials in Los Angeles, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Anchorage, Alaska, New Orleans, and Houston should consult with the youth-service practitioners working in their communities - the people who Ritter chose to ignore in his rush to expand his services and his donor base. They know the territory and how to apply the federal law's sensible rules to best help homeless young people.

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