The website for Covenant House New Jersey shows some of its services.
The website for Covenant House New Jersey shows some of its services.
The constraints of social distancing brought on by COVID-19 are making for a different type of spring for Covenant House in Asbury Park.

“It’s been a challenge for us,” said Jim White, executive director of Covenant House New Jersey, which offers residential and social services for homeless and at-risk youth and young adults. “The schools are shut down. Many of our kids were working jobs that are no longer there.”

Since the statewide shutdown in March, staff and volunteers have been making it more of a priority than ever to let the young people who shelter inside the Asbury Park location – and others throughout New Jersey – know that “we are here for them 24/7, that the need to provide care and safety for them” is always of primary importance, White said.

Covenant House New Jersey (CHNJ) provides sanctuary, food, employment training and other support for young people ages 16-24 as they combat a range of issues including homelessness, abuse, abandonment and human trafficking. Aside from Asbury Park, Covenant House services are provided in six other sites in the state, including Atlantic City, Newark, Jersey City and Camden. Overall, there are 31 Covenant House locations across the nation, Canada and Central America.

Across all the New Jersey sites, White said, the organization offers its free services to about 4,585 young people a year.

White shared how Covenant House moved quickly to suspend activities that involved outings and rearrange living quarters when it became clear COVID-19 would require social distancing. “We came early to the dance,” he said. “We got ahead as far as sanitary equipment and food were concerned.”

“Our team worked hard to prioritize,” he added. “They prioritized our shelters before they prioritized their own homes.”

For example, staff and volunteers created areas where the young people could self-isolate for safety reasons.

“We changed offices into bedrooms. Classrooms were cleared out to become bedrooms. We brought in equipment, everything that was necessary – masks, sanitizers and gowns,” White said. “The kids wear gloves; they stay on the property. They go outside for fresh air but stay close to the building. When they come in, they wash their hands.”

In the beginning, when social distancing was becoming the new normal, tensions sometimes ran high, he noted. “But the kids have stepped up and been respectful, and the staff – the food people, the cleaning people, everyone – have been heroic about coming in. No one has said no.”

“It’s been quite amazing,” White continued. “People are inspired by the mission. We have two beautiful buildings here in Asbury Park. The kids feel very safe. They have their own rooms. We are doing the best we can and hoping to get through this amazing experience.”

White admitted that the young people “can get cabin fever, but they have been responsible. They have understood that the need to be safe comes first.”

There is, however, a real and lingering matter of concern, White said.

“Covenant House is 83 percent privately funded. The government is not invested,” he said. “Our population relies on the kindness of others, and we think we are in real danger of losing a significant portion of the funding we do have. I’m hoping that some financial help will come in the near future to help get us through.”

To help or for more information, visit the Covenant House New Jersey website.