Over 200 people gathered on the Wharf’s Recreation Pier on a cold November night, preparing to sleep outside despite temperatures dropping to the low 40s. Their sleeping bags, collapsed cardboard boxes and wooden shipping pallets were a stark contrast to the luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants lining the redeveloped waterfront.
Covenant House Greater Washington (CHGW) hosted its annual Sleep Out event on Nov. 16 in tandem with Covenant Houses across the country to raise funds and awareness to combat youth homelessness. The nonprofit supports young adults ages 18 to 24 experiencing homelessness through housing, drop-in centers, clothing, food, mental health services and career preparation services.
“I think a lot of people think [the Sleep Out] is designed to mimic homelessness, but that’s not the intent at all,” said Angela Jones Hackley, CEO of CHGW. “It really is … an event to show young people who are experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity that we see you and we support you.”
The Sleep Out is one of CHGW’s largest fundraising events, Jones Hackley said. Last year, the organization raised about $364,000 to support youth programs. This year, the nonprofit increased its goal to $500,000 which organizers hope to raise through this event and another Sleep Out in the spring.
The funds go toward CHGW services that government contracts don’t fully cover, including food, toiletries and workforce development staff, Jones Hackley said.
CHGW serves up to 132 young adults through their D.C. and Prince George’s County locations.
Despite lower rates of homelessness overall compared to pre-pandemic, D.C. and surrounding counties have seen a rise in young adults experiencing homelessness since 2019, according to the Point-in-Time Count — the annual census of individuals experiencing homelessness.
According to the 2023 count, the number of single young adults ages 18 to 24 experiencing homelessness more than tripled in Prince George’s County from 2019 to 2023. The District saw an increase of 40% in young adult homelessness since 2019.
Before the Sleep Out, a panel of Covenant House alumni gave testimony to the positive effects the organization had on their lives.
The group gave credit to the organization for teaching them skills they needed to succeed after finishing the program. Since leaving Covenant House, the alumni have become business owners, general managers and stylists.
“You can give a person a billion dollars, but to teach a person to make a billion dollars is way more important,” program alumni Saquan Brown said.
The organization is there to support individuals, but each person is responsible for their own progress, Terra Stephens, who is now a case manager at the organization, said. The relationships established with their peers, organization staff and mentors helped young people navigate their way to independent living situations and careers.
Stephens sought out CHGW services twice — she arrived at the organization first at 18 and returned as a single mother at 21. While in transition between housing locations, she said the staff welcomed her and her then-five-month-old son with open arms.
“I had no anxiety about coming back because I knew what the environment was,” she said. “We had created a family for ourselves.”
Stephens’ first-hand experience with homelessness as a single mother is an asset when working with program participants as a case manager, she said.
During the panel, alumni Jazmine Butler encouraged youth in need to reach out for support when in need.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” said Butler. “I think that’s what a lot of our youths who struggle with homelessness are doing. They’re afraid to ask for help because they’re afraid to be told no.”
Aside from funding, the Sleep Out is designed to raise awareness for what young people experiencing homelessness go through, especially during the colder months. The event draws newcomers and people who regularly participate each year. For many, it can help reinvigorate commitment to fighting homelessness, CEO Jones Hackley said.
For third-year participant and board member Jake Brody, participating in the Sleep Out keeps him motivated to continue the work Covenant House does.
“The reality is you feel humbled and you feel inspired,” Brody said. “You feel humbled by the challenge facing those who experience homelessness on a daily basis and you feel inspired to continue to give more.”
After the alumni panel, event organizers recognized Brody as this year’s top individual fundraiser with over $9,000 raised. He said he hopes to see the entire pier filled with participants from across the metro D.C. area in the future.
Hope, it seems, is never in short supply at the organization.
Hope got program alumni and case manager Stephens through life when she sought out services years ago, and now as she helps her clients.
“[Covenant House] let me know that hope is infinite,” Stephens said. “Hope never drains, hope is always there when nothing else is left.”