February

Special Covenant, Safe Harbor

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For more than five decades, every kid with a sweet tooth in Northwest Philly knew about the Asher buildings on East Armat Street. Their reputation for pumping out some of the best chocolate on the East Coast was almost legendary.

And so the irony is that today every homeless, runaway or trafficked young adult who finds his or her way to the former Asher candy factory in the city’s Germantown section still finds respite, but of a much different kind.

“Absolute respect and unconditional love,” that’s what they get, according to Hugh Organ.

Organ is a straight-talking Alvernia alum, class of ’94, who helps operate the Covenant House located in the former confectioner’s plant. He exudes welcome and warmth, but also the no-nonsense demeanor of the Philly cop he thought he would be.

Armed with a degree in criminal justice and a near-perfect test score for the police academy, Organ thought he would wait out a police department hiring freeze when he took his first job after college at a teen residential treatment facility. Twenty years later he is the associate executive director at Covenant House, the state arm of an international organization that provides shelter, food, clothing, job training, education, transportation and medical and mental health services for homeless youth who are under 21. Many of them have aged out of social service welfare programs that stop providing care at age 18.

Covenant House is the largest private child welfare agency in the Delaware Valley and is the largest provider of services to runaway and homeless youth in Philadelphia. It also chairs the Philadelphia Anti-Trafficking Coalition, a network of social service, government and law enforcement agencies that work to abolish human trafficking and provide services to its victims.

Organ loves his job and is grateful for that unplanned career divergence right after graduation. He always liked helping young people, even as a student at Alvernia. When he was student government president, he helped create the Christmas on Campus program, which pairs inner-city Reading youth with students for a funfilled carnival-like night on campus.

His advocacy work at Covenant House “is very rewarding,” he says. “It can be depressing at times because not all our kids make it. But we have a lot of successes.”

Organ helps oversee everything from street outreach programs, where Covenant employees pack vans with peanut butter and jelly lunches, scarves, gloves and coats and hand them out — along with Covenant hotline and toll-free phone numbers — to homeless youth wandering near the city’s most notorious drug corners. They also give law enforcement officers and teachers tutorials on spotting the signs of human trafficking victims.

Part of Organ’s job is to raise money. Eighty-five percent of the nonprofit’s funding is privately raised. One of “the most powerful, moving” fundraiser experiences, he says, is the once-a-year Sleep Out, where CEOs, business leaders and young professionals pledge a certain amount of money to spend the night in the parking lot outside Covenant House without a bed and blanket, to get a taste of homeless life. Some of the homeless youth helped by Covenant House share their stories at the sleepover.

“The kids talk about ... how they have slept out on subway platforms and stairwells in buildings,” Organ says. The participants learn firsthand how street noises, safety concerns and drops in temperature get amplified at night. “It’s eye-opening. At a certain point you just get cold and there is nothing you can do to warm up.” He has seen a lot of bad things on the job, but he says he has yet to meet a bad kid.

“A lot of angry kids. A lot of misunderstood kids. Understandably,” he says. Their families destroyed by drug addiction or prison sentences, many are pushed out of the familial door for being an economic burden.

“You expect anger and depression. But they are not bad kids. Given the proper support, these kids flourish.” One transitioned out of the shelter to become a Philadelphia police officer. Another sings in the Navy choir. Several have joined the Armed Forces.

Covenant House has a policy of open intake, “which means once a person walks through that door we provide shelter, no questions asked,” says Organ. “Once our beds fill up, we have mats we roll out on the floor... normally we are over capacity every night of the week.”

Youths can stay as long as they need to, provided they develop a “goal plan” that includes getting a job. “As long as you are working on your goals, we are going to work with you,” Organ says. Although 45 days is an average stay, the average relationship with Covenant House lasts three years.

Organ’s “kids,” most of whom arrive with no way to prove who they are, are taught how to apply for a birth certificate, get a picture ID, land a job, keep a job, save money and pay rent. After they save $300 they can apply to the transitional housing program in Kensington called Rite of Passage, which Covenant House also runs.

“The thing I like about Covenant House is that some places you go to, you hear about a mission statement at orientation and it’s never mentioned again,” says Organ.

“But here the mission is alive and well.” And Organ is proof positive of that.

photo: Hugh Organ

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