Carol Howes is director of program services at Convenant House. Michael Swan

Covenant House fights the lonely battles

  • December 19, 2019

Over the past 24 years, Carol Howes has seen a lot of teens face Christmas alone in a shelter, wondering where they belong and whether they have a future.

Covenant House offers warmth, hope and a pathway to a better life to about 3,000 homeless youth every year. That comes to 72,000 young people, mostly between 16 and 24, who have been guided by programs implemented by Howes over her 24 years as director of program services at the Toronto shelter.

As of April, Howes will slip off into retirement. But she will leave with especially vivid memories of Christmas at Covenant House.

“I have worked in other organizations and I never saw anything like I saw here on Christmas. Just the whole month is consumed with Christmas,” Howes told The Catholic Register.

There’s a reason for that.

“It’s hard (to face Christmas alone). You can’t say that it isn’t hard,” she said.

“You have to acknowledge that it’s hard and that we’re here to try to help them feel a little less horrible about the situation they find themselves in. We really want them to know that we care about them.”

So inside the big heritage building in downtown Toronto (a former young women’s residence operated by the Protestant Women’s Christian Temperance Union) the halls and meeting rooms are dripping with Christmas garlands, wreaths, candy canes, twinkling LED lights and a big, glittering Christmas tree all through the month of December. But it goes much deeper than the decorations, Howes said.

“We really try to make them feel like they’re part of something bigger here,” she said. “And they’ve got people who care about them and will acknowledge them.”

Staff are on the lookout for young people showing signs of depression. Not every homeless youth is thinking of suicide, but Covenant House staff is trained and ready to see the signs.

Psychiatrists and counsellors are always available.

Short of the most extreme and violent possibilities, there are more than enough occasions for tears through the Christmas season.

“It breaks my heart. There was one young girl who said to me that (a Covenant House gift bag) was the only gift she was going to get,” Howes said. “That’s very sad to hear, that if we weren’t there they get nothing.”

Central to the Covenant House Christmas experience is the big Christmas-day buffet for residents, alumni, staff and volunteers. Lots of food, conviviality and even family are there for homeless youth whose own family memories are not necessarily happy.

“The staff bring their kids. So it does have this family feel,” Howes said. “And Santa Claus comes.”

This Christmas, Howes is looking forward to meeting with a graduate of Avdell Home, Covenant House’s separate program and residence for survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking. Avdell Home opened in 2016 and this will be the first Christmas it will have its own alumni, youth who have completed two years of intensive counselling and healing. The Avdell graduate Howes expects to talk with at the annual Christmas buffet now has her own apartment in Scarborough.

“So she’s got it on her calendar to come to the buffet this year, because she remembers how great it felt to be here and part of something bigger,” Howes said. 

The formal program for trafficking victims is just one of the ways Howes has seen Covenant House grow over the past quarter century. 

Howes also takes pride in how Covenant House has evolved into a more personal relationship with each young person, helping them establish a plan for their future.

“It was more institutionalized when I first came here,” she said. “Now what we’re doing is really looking at each individual youth and saying, ‘What’s your plan?’... We’re really walking with the young people, rather than telling them what we think is better for them.”

Christmas is an opportunity to find out whether it works. “You don’t always know in this kind of work where the young people end up. But our young people seem driven to tell us,” she said.

“Early on in my time here, there was a young man with a lot of challenges. He had stayed with us for quite a while, but he finally got to a spot where he could go and live on his own. And he moved to Ottawa,” Howes recalled. 

“This young man took a bus from Ottawa on the day of the (Christmas) buffet, came to the buffet, turned around, took a four- or five-hour bus ride back to Ottawa just so he could come to the buffet and say ‘Hi’ to staff and tell them how well he was doing.”

It’s moments like that Howes will miss in retirement.

“Everything is going to be sad next year, as the first year of retirement,” she said.

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