Daiana Barboza, a youth worker at Covenant House in Toronto, says the shelter for homeless youth tries to make Christmas as family-like as it can for the youth it serves. Photo by Michael Swan

Homeless youth given a taste of the season at the Covenant House

  • December 24, 2017

On Christmas Eve, before the presents are handed out, the kids at Covenant House will gather in the chapel, referred to as the sanctuary room at the shelter for homeless youth, to hear the story of Christmas — the birth of the saviour as a homeless refugee.

Youth worker Daiana Barboza is sure that the story can only help to make sense of what will likely be an emotionally difficult Christmas for the 16- to 24-year-olds who have sought shelter at Toronto’s Covenant House.

“It’s a beautiful story. Why not tell it?” she said.

Barboza is no theologian and she has no intention of preaching or analyzing the Nativity stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. She wants to keep it simple. 

“People don’t know exactly why we celebrate Christmas,” she said. “I’m hoping this will be just a joyful thing.”

Not all the youth staying at the 96-bed downtown shelter are Christian. Often emerging from chaotic families and backgrounds of neglect, even the baptized among them may be largely unchurched. Just telling the simple story of Christmas can put the season in context for them, said Barboza.

After telling the Gospel Nativity story, Barbosa plans to share some of her own experiences of Christmas, then invite the youth to share their own memories, feelings and reflections.

“Everybody has a story, even Jesus,” she said.

The Christmas program at Covenant House also includes a Christmas Eve pajama party, midnight Christmas gift distribution and a lot of food on Christmas Day, including brunch and dinner. In the afternoon kids will make gingerbread houses.

“We’re family here. We want to make sure they feel like they can trust us, that we love them, that we’re supporting them,” said Covenant House communications manager Michael Sheiner. “We try to make it so it’s like what a typical family would be experiencing at home.”

Many of the Covenant House residents in the Rites of Passage program — an intensive set of life-skills lessons and preparation for independent living — do go home for Christmas. With the numbers down, Christmas at Covenant House is a peaceful time of year.

“Christmas here is sometimes nice and quiet. It’s peaceful and quiet,” he said, adding staff will be ready to deal with any seasonal stress.

“We face a wide variety of situations. That’s why we’ve got professional youth workers there to help anybody who needs any help. Any type of situation that arises — feelings or emotions or that kind of thing — we’re ready for it.”

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