Community voices: Journey home begins on New York City’s streets

 

 
 
 
 
Kevin Kokoska is a youth worker at Covenant House Vancouver.
 

Kevin Kokoska is a youth worker at Covenant House Vancouver.

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“Keep going! You’re almost home!”

The moment a stranger shouts this out at you as you’re running in a marathon is the same moment you realize your marathon has gone awry. What they’re trying to say is, “You look like hell, but don’t worry. Soon you’ll be safe.”

They have used “home” as a reassurance. As a feeling, not a place. By instinct, not by accident. To many, home is the most comforting word in the English language.

Home is where you feel safe enough to grow and supported enough to keep growing. And it’s not just pencil marks on a door frame. It’s Mom’s invitation to sneak past your brother’s bedroom after bedtime to join her for a movie that doesn’t star Batman or Jim Carrey. And it’s the basketball hoop that Dad raises after you tell him you can dunk. Home is the understanding that there will always be someone there to pick you up — even if it’s to be carried off to your room for a time out.

For many people though, home is a dream — or a nightmare. To them, home is like planning a trip to a city they’ve never been. You can buy the map, read the travel guides, talk with friends who live there, click through Google images, but until you experience it for yourself, you can never quite grasp it.

As a youth worker at Covenant House Vancouver, I have the privilege of working with young people at various stages of their journey home. Many of them are on the verge of creating, or recreating, a place of unconditional love, shelter and security. Some are on the doorstep of this place, close enough to feel the warmth. While others are still outside in the cold, contemplating.

In this sense, “Almost Home” acts as our best model of a place that is impossible to replicate — a prelude to a life we all deserve.

“People fear what they don’t understand and hate what they can’t conquer.”

Whether the transition is from street-to-home or vice versa, a new way of life in new surroundings with new people is always scary.

New York City, then, is one of the scariest places of all. It’s as though it were built to claim your frame of reference, your perspective, even your identity, in its melting pot of persons unknown and structures unbelievable.

During a trip to New York this summer, I was given a tour through that city’s Covenant House.

Differences between its branch and Vancouver’s were everywhere: the metal detectors, the demographics, the geographically-specific barriers, the whopping (and ever-occupied) three hundred shelter beds. Yet, below the surface, much was reassuringly the same: the roles, the relationships, the artistic expression on the walls (and occasionally on the furniture), the appeal of the clothing room (there known as “Covingdales”), and the principles that guide all the above.

On the edge of a strange city, this — the goals of at-risk youth meeting and intermingling with the values embodied by staff — I am familiar with. I had found what more than 77,000 other young people find annually in that same location, a safe haven.

It felt good and it was about to get better. During my visit, I learned of Covenant House Home Team.

It’s a program that offers guaranteed entry into high-profile, highly exclusive endurance events in exchange for a fundraising commitment to Covenant House and a willingness to run, “not only for yourself, but on behalf of those who have no voice of their own—homeless youth.” The next Home Team event, before it was cancelled Friday by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was to be the ING NYC Marathon on Sunday.

As an employee of Covenant House with an affinity for endurance sport, there is only one answer to the question: “Want to join us for the New York City Marathon?” But, somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to give it. Written between the lines of a marathon registration form is a metaphor that represents, to a lesser degree, the challenge many homeless youth accept by accessing our services: Overcome a big something by breaking it into a series of small somethings.

Marathons often hold great personal significance. The effort and inspiration required to cross the finish line should not go overlooked. However, after hearing the stories of hundreds of homeless youth since joining Covenant House, a metaphorical understanding of their journey did not feel like enough.

Just as we consider the meaning behind the behaviour in the youth that we serve, I had to ask myself: What is enough? To experience a new city? To raise awareness? To raise money? To feed my ego? To be part of a team? To build my endurance? To break myself down? To write about it?

To be humbled.

That’s when I chose to do more than run in New York on behalf of our youth. I chose to move beyond a second-hand understanding of their reality. When I was in Grade 9 an advocate for the visually impaired visited my high school. He passed around “experiential goggles” to all the students. The goggles offered an opaque and inconsistent form of vision to a) highlight the fact that most blind people are not totally blind, and b) make the point that our world does not appropriately accommodate the visually impaired.

The goggles achieved the first of these goals. The second was discounted for two reasons: environment and duration. We had been in that classroom all semester and knew every nook and note-stashing cranny. In addition, we only wore the goggles for ten milky-eyed minutes. Once removed, the feedback was: “I got around just fine” or “That wasn’t so bad” or “What’s the point of seeing-eye dogs?”

We didn’t leave our comfort zone. We didn’t have time. We weren’t humbled. We were in Grade 9.

I replay these lessons in my mind as I prepare to disconnect from all that is familiar and embark on the most authentic street experience I can. Environment and duration.

I am a 25 year-old male. I do front-line work with youth of my same generation. I wish to gain perspective on their lives as well as my own. I want to give back as I am taking. I choose to leave the comforts of home. As of yesterday morning, I will have begun 48 hours of homelessness on the streets on New York City.

For the moment, It’s eerie to see New York in such disarray. Much of Manhattan is still without power, train stations are flooded, and from where I sit, I can see a collapsed crane dangling from the side of a skyscraper in mid-town Manhattan. Locals are describing it as almost a post-9/11 feel. And, at first, it all felt very ominous to me.

However, the more I think about it in relation to the Almost Home initiative, I am beginning to see things in a different light. I think there is a sense of solidarity that will emerge from this. Things are being put into perspective. Much of what I am looking to take away from this experience, personally, is being echoed by the entire city.

All this is clear to me now. Though it wasn’t as I walked toward the exit of Covenant House New York at the end of the tour this summer. And not when a staff member asked me in parting, “Well, what was that like for you?”

“It was like being back home. Almost.”

For more information or to arrange a donation, contact kkokoska@covenanthousebc.org

 
 
 
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Kevin Kokoska is a youth worker at Covenant House Vancouver.
 

Kevin Kokoska is a youth worker at Covenant House Vancouver.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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