Kevin Ryan, president of Covenant House, is pictured with Covenant House children at left in this undated photo. His book Almost Home is climbing bestseller charts in Canada and the United States. CNS photo/ courtesy of Covenant House

Youth survive streets to find hope

  • November 10, 2012

“Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11), he might as well have been talking directly to Covenant House president and CEO Kevin Ryan. Ryan may be a 45-year-old lawyer and former civil servant, but he doesn’t go to work in the morning. He goes to war.

“The stakes are very high. This is a street war,” Ryan told The Catholic Register. “We’re fighting against the bullies and the bullets and the predators and the pornographers and the pervs and the guns and the gangs… We lose kids. We lose them to the streets. We lose them to despair. We lose them to suicide. But we win more kids by far.”

Ryan’s report from the frontlines of Covenant House’s war for children has been catalogued in Almost Home, Ryan’s best selling book. Almost Home has hit number five on the Washington Post non-fiction list. It’s creeping up the Publisher’s Weekly rankings for trade paperbacks. It’s number two on Amazon’s list of Canadian international and world politics titles.

Co-authored with former New York Times staff writer Tina Kelley, Almost Home tells the story of six Covenant House kids, one of them Canadian and another who spent years on the streets of Toronto and Vancouver. They aren’t Chicken Soup for the Soul stories. Murial meets Covenant House Vancouver as a prostitute who had three different pimps by the time she was 20, an addict who had been getting high from the age of 12 and still living with the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. Meagan was thrown out of her family home as a teenager because she is gay. Paulie was beaten over and over by his father, but found refuge in drugs.

“They don’t see virtue in their lives. The message they’ve gotten over and over and over is, ‘You’re broken, you’re defective, you’re unwanted,’ ” said Ryan.

There aren’t necessarily happy endings to such stories. But these are stories people need to hear because lives are at stake, said Ryan.

Between 20 and 40 per cent of homeless youth attempt suicide. It is a leading cause of their deaths. Covenant House Toronto reports that homeless youth are 11 times more likely to die young than the rest of the population.

Toronto’s Covenant House, like the 20 other Covenant Houses in North and Central America, does a lot of things for homeless kids. It provides shelter, helps kids finish school, helps them reconnect with family when possible, find housing, find mentors, point the way to jobs. It also helps kids find the mental health care they need.

“They are often as traumatized as men who are returning from war,” said Ryan.

If teen suicide is now a national issue, Covenant House is in a position to give Canada some national advice: Kids need love.

“It requires love,” said Ryan. “But it also requires that we be love in the world in a responsible and effective way. That requires more than a sentimental hug and a warm meal. It means making sure that our kids have the attention and clinical care they need to transcend the darkness that overshadows their lives.”

Ryan claims to be shocked by the success of Almost Home.

“These are stories about young people who have pulled themselves up, climbed out of the darkness, in some instances from violence and trafficking and drug abuse, and found hope in their lives.”

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