At 6 a.m. on what felt like the first true winter morning of the year, I stood outside talking with Gerald J. Piro, Director of Covenant House Detroit.
He’d just spent the night outside, in a cardboard box bed and a few layers of clothing, with the mission to help raise awareness about homelessness in Detroit and across the country.
The Covenant House location at 2959 Martin Luther King Blvd. houses a total of 75 homeless youth. 45 live in the emergency facility, the remaining 30 in a long term shelter, where they can stay up to two years as they seek employment, earn a diploma, or get their own home.
Covenant House, founded in 1972, is the largest privately funded charity in the Americas. Their mission is to provide loving care and vital services to homeless, abandoned, abused, trafficked, and exploited youth.
Last night, they held their second annual Sleep Out fundraising event, which gives business leaders across North America the opportunity to wield their influence to raise awareness and critical funds for homeless youth. Participants must be C-suite execs, business owners, leaders in their organization or Covenant House Board Members.
“The first Sleep Out event took place about 5 years ago in New York City, then it spread to all the other Covenant House Locations across the US and Canada. We joined last year. All 16 US and Canadian covenant houses do this on the same night ever year, and it’s also a part of the homeless and hunger awareness week,” said Piro.
For only in its second year, the event was a huge success.
“We had 72 sleepers, almost double last year’s count” said Piro. “As of right now we’ve raised $340,000 in Detroit. Nationally we’ve raised $6.1 million, and we’re still taking donations until the end of December.”
This year’s success handily surpassed the last. According to the Huffington Post, in 2014 Detroit participants raised $200,000 for the local chapter, and the organization secured $4.5 million nationally.
For this occasion, Executives formed teams to raise funds, and this year the Detroit Auto Dealers Association (DADA) was the presenting sponsor and top earner, pulling in a whopping $102,000 in donations.
Sam Slaughter, President of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, said his team’s success was the result of a collaborative effort between members.
“The DADA do a lot of charitable work around the city, so when one of us says, ‘hey this is something we should do’, a lot of the other dealers want to rally and support it,” said Slaughter. “In addition to sponsoring the event, each of our team members raised at least $5,000. From my perspective, the more people we could get on our team the better we would do. So last year we had 14 people, this year we had 20, and we were able to pull in about $102,000 this year.”
While fundraising is an important part of the event, there is also a focus on education and raising awareness of the homelessness situation in Detroit.
“The best thing people can do is to educate themselves about homelessness and spread that awareness and knowledge to others,” said Piro.
This event helps to foster that education and awareness in a unique and impactful way. Covenant House facilitates conversations between the sleepers and their residents.
Piro explains that “One of the things we do at these events is that our residents agree to sit with each one of our sleepers at a roundtable to tell them how they ended up homeless, what their circumstances were, and what it’s been like. And that is truly very impactful for everyone here.”
Slaughter reflected on the positive impact of his conversations with the residents. “It’s really powerful. These kids, first of all, you have to admire their grit for getting through what they have. But also, they’re willing to share it with people they’ve never met.”
“Their stories are amazing,” he continued. “Often times, it’s just one thing — your parents lose their job, for example — that kicks you into a situation, and then you can’t find the way out. Covenant House provides them the big lift they need to get back on track.”
Covenant House depends on fundraising/education hybrid events like this as a means of inspiring participants to go out and spread the word about the young people they meet, and educate others on how they can get involved. With cuts in government funding to theirs and many similar programs, they reliant on private donations to continue their work.
“My big take away this year is just the impact of growing this event. As business owners and citizens, we all can write a check, but this is a real experience and that engages people. Everyone of us is going to take this experience and use it to recruit more people for next year. I think that over time this event will really help to raise awareness about homelessness.”
While such events may only feel like a small step in the organization’s challenging crusade against homeless, Piro remains optimistic about the work. Pointing to a house that the funds will help improve and maintain over the next few years, he says, “We raised enough to do that this year and hopefully we can do it again next year.”