How Faith Based Charities Can Work: The Success of Covenant House

He is washing dishes in a small deli in lower Manhattan as he tells me the story of his life. Chris Maceira is a Latino in his late teens, with short black hair and small red pockmarks on his throat. Something about him, perhaps the way his pupils enlarge like syrup being poured on a plate, suggests rawness, a quality you often notice when talking with people who have lived on the street. Maceira tells me he comes from a broken family in Queens. His parents divorced while he was young, and afterward he drifted, never completing high school. He joined a gang and began selling drugs.

“I tried to get assistance from my family, but there was too much bad blood, I guess,” he says plainly. He searches for words to describe how his family had treated him. “I just don’t, I don’t know, it’s not…” He pauses. “I tried to have value, but it was like I was just a piece of meat.”

Since then, his life appears to have turned around. Maceira works here at Ezekiel’s Café and plans to be a waiter or a bartender. He hopes one day to own a house or a condo. Part of this change he credits to encouragement he received from his father, who now lives in Phoenix. The other part he credits to Covenant House, a Catholic nonprofit that serves runaways and street kids.

Maceira first lived at Covenant House’s Manhattan shelter at 41st Street and 10th Avenue, a gloomy building where Maceira says many of the kids were into drugs, gambling, and violence. Maceira flourished under the organization’s job and housing services. He was later accepted into Rights of Passage, a special program in which teenagers work and receive job training while they live in a huge building on West 17th Street. Apart from training and housing, Maceira discovered something else at Covenant House: the importance of prayer. “I try to go to church, but I don’t go much,” he says. “I basically pray. They encourage us. They set up a youth prayer service.”

Maceira is one of hundreds of thousands who have been helped by Covenant House. With 15 sites in the United States, the nonprofit organization serves about 38,000 kids a year. About two-thirds of the people it helps are 18 or older, which means that most of them are not legally orphans. For most of its history, the organization had no way to gauge how kids fared after leaving its programs, but recently it commissioned the Menninger Foundation, a Missouri-based group that studies behavioral health, to follow up on Covenant House alums. The results were impressive. A “significant” number of its runaway and street kids left the program with a job and a decent place to live.

The success is no accident. Part of it has to do with the range and quality of services Covenant House offers. Part of it is the emphasis on divine love one finds there. And part of it is the strong, steady leadership of the organization’s president, Sister Mary Rose McGeady.

Whatever the explanation, it’s no stretch to say that Covenant House is a model organization for faith-based legislation. It receives federal funding—$13.6 million last fiscal year (almost 10 percent of its budget)—and yet its religious mission endures; its fidelity to Catholic teaching and its emphasis on prayer have not been compromised by public money. Just as important, the Menninger study shows that the program is good at getting the most out of its funding.

The Work of Faith

Since at least the 19th century, religious orphanages have had a bad name in some circles. Books like Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist told of Christian churches overworking and underfeeding orphans under England’s Poor Laws. Of course, conditions in state orphanages were often just as bad, but somehow this seemed less scandalous, a matter of incompetence rather than hypocrisy. More than 100 years later, after massive changes in both systems, the outlook for many orphans is still grim.

A good example was documented by Mark Courtney, an associate professor of social work at the University of Chicago. In 1999 he completed a study of Wisconsin’s foster-care program, following 113 kids for a year to 18 months after discharge. Forty percent were jobless, 37 percent hadn’t completed high school, and 44 percent were either in prison, homeless, or receiving public aid. Things are even worse nationally. According to the last federal study, only half of those leaving foster care, generally 18- and 19-year-olds, had graduated from high school. More than half were jobless, while a quarter had spent time in prison.

What the Menninger Foundation study found was that Covenant House had nearly the opposite effect on kids. It tracked all the 18- to 21-year-olds in New York and California who had stayed at the nonprofit’s crisis shelters for at least three days between November 1998 and January 2000. Not just the graduates of the program were tracked but all those who entered. The result: a “significantly” increased level of employment and school enrollment—a trend that held six months after participants had left the program.

In the New York cohort, almost 1,300 kids were tracked at the crisis shelters for six months, though 500 later disappeared. The typical resident stayed for 18 days and was likely to have been either physically or sexually abused or to have been arrested or in foster care. The result: a substantial jump in employment. Of the 833 kids who remained in contact, employment rose to 29 per-cent from 21 percent.

Six months later, another follow-up study was done of 202 kids, though 16 later disappeared. Of those who remained in contact, 15 percent were working when they entered the program. After six months, 38 percent were working—an increase of 23 percent. Also impressive in this group was the number of participants who found good housing afterward, which was defined as living in an apartment, a family residence, or Covenant House’s 13-month transitional program. Forty-nine percent had good housing immediately after graduating; after six months that number leaped to 70 percent.

Kids in the California group had been even worse off than those in New York. The teens who were tracked stayed at the crisis shelters for an average of 31 days. Half had been in foster-care, and many reported physical and sexual abuse. Of the 255 kids who kept in touch, 29 percent either had a job or were in school when they entered the program; after discharge, the number rose to 47 percent—a jump of 18 percent.

Not all the kids fared well. Twelve to 13 percent were arrested after six months, mostly for misdemeanors. And the study wasn’t definitive. Six months isn’t much time to measure results, Courtney says, because many kids won’t become homeless again until more than a year later. Still, he says, “I’d give them some credit, because very few organizations look at kids after any length of time.”

A Commitment to Service

In the time I spent visiting Covenant House, I asked Sister McGeady why she thought the nonprofit helped such a tough group of kids.

“We’re dedicated and treat everyone with respect and love,” she answered. “What you have to understand is no one can send a kid to Covenant House. We don’t take kids from the court. We won’t take that kid. We have rules—no drugs, no alcohol, no weapons, no fighting. But if you follow those rules, you stay here till we can find something better for you.” She paused. “The most common thing is a lack of stability in their lives. I’ll ask them, ‘Where do you live?’ And they’ll say, ‘My last bed was sleeping on a couch and then I’ll go to Grandma’s.”

Sister McGeady’s emphasis on setting rules and punishing those who break them is clearly important and echoes the experience of successful principals at Catholic inner-city schools. What’s often over-looked is her first point—about the importance of love and respect. This is one area where faith-based groups have almost a natural advantage over their secular counterparts. They can talk about—and demonstrate—a love that is anchored in something firmer than human emotion.

Even the language used by Covenant House to describe its work conveys this difference. First, here is the mission statement of Positive Youth Development, a program for runaway and homeless kids run by the state of Washington: “Developing opportunities for youth to have stable relationships builds a sense of belonging. Skill building for effective functioning in a complex and competitive world increases a sense of power and competence.” Now here’s Covenant House’s mission statement: “We who recognize God’s providence and fidelity to His people are dedicated to living out His covenant among ourselves and those children we serve, with absolute respect and unconditional love. That commitment calls us to serve suffering children in the street, and to protect and safeguard all children.”

Many of the young people who arrive at Covenant House are psychologically damaged—feeling not only that they can’t trust anyone but that most people are out to hurt them, or at least use them. This is one reason Covenant House stresses the importance of prayer rather than openly proselytizing. “We stress love, caring, and forgiveness. I think for most of them, they question whether God loves them. All they’ve done has brought hurt and abuse, so they’re really eager and receptive to hear that they’re good people,” says Rev. Placid Stroik, a Franciscan who works with young people at the New York site.

At breakfast, a couple of priests or ministers will ask kids if they’d like to attend evening chapel. Father Stroik, who presides at the services, estimates that only about 30 percent of the crisis shelter’s 350 participants express no interest in attending. About five to 15 kids attend regularly, he says, and the services usually revolve around issues of grief and loss. There’s a Bible reading—often on the story of the prodigal son—and those assembled are asked how it applies to their lives.

Other leaders in the post-foster-care field also stress the importance of religion in helping these young people rebuild their lives. Bill Pinto, the director of youth development for the state of Connecticut, testified three years ago before Congress about legislation that became the 1999 Chafee Foster Care Independence Act. “We see spirituality as a major component of who they are,” Pinto says. “A lot of people have been disenfranchised. They don’t know their story. We really feel if they find peace with the past, they can go forward.”

Sister Barbara ‘Whelan, the executive director of Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Inc., a Boston-based nonprofit that also works with street kids, isn’t convinced that street kids need religion. Kids should come to “an open environment,” she says. Yet she, too, supports the idea of federal dollars going to faith-based organizations: “If the programs are good, I don’t care who gives them money.”

The other benefit of the program’s religious framework is its effect on the staff. Dr. Carol Cornsweet-Barber, an author of the Menninger report, says staff members “see it as both a moral and spiritual value to helping these kids.” She notes that while some secular organizations have similar values, the mission at faith-based ones “is more clearly stated sometimes.”

I got a sense of what she was talking about when I spoke with Laura Quinn, who teaches a desktop publishing class at Covenant House. Quinn graduated from college with degrees in history and computer science, an education that might have paved the way for a corporate career. Instead she joined Covenant House’s Faith Community, a Peace Corps–type service group whose volunteers are given free room and board and a weekly stipend of $15. Today Quinn earns enough to share a place with a roommate in Queens, but she says the work isn’t easy. “This is a high-stress environment working with the kids, more so in the crisis center,” she says. “The kids are definitely in crisis.”

Quinn’s class also illustrates another reason for Covenant House’s success: the breadth and depth of its programs. Hers is one of a handful that make up its Rights of Passage program, which also offers day care for working mothers and vocational classes in nursing, security, and silk screening. Crisis shelters are organized differently, since they must meet the needs of homeless teens—food, lodging, health care, and psychiatric evaluation. The shelters also help them land jobs and attend school. Everyone who stays at Covenant House attends a mandatory job-readiness workshop, where the focus is on writing résumés, developing interview skills, and learning the proper dress. The kids meet a job developer who has connections with employers around town, says Laura Wymbs, a spokeswoman for the program.

These sorts of “soft skills” might sound commonplace, but according to the congressional testimony Courtney delivered three years ago, they’re rare among the youth Covenant House tries to help: “The focus in the child welfare system…has neglected providing youth with services they need to acquire the social, emotional, and basic life skills necessary for the transition to adulthood and independence.” He found that fewer than one-fifth of Wisconsin’s post-foster-care kids had received job training or help obtaining housing, personal health records, or health insurance.

The Old and New Covenants

If Covenant House becomes a national model, it wouldn’t be the first time. During the Reagan and previous Bush administrations, Covenant House and its then-president, Rev. Bruce Ritter, were held up as exemplars of compassion and discipline. Reagan singled out Father Ritter in his 1984 State of the Union address as one of the country’s “unsung heroes,” and in November 1989, President George H.W. Bush traveled to Covenant House’s corporate headquarters at 346 West 17th Street to launch his “Thousand Points of Light” initiative. Although the nonprofit had a reputation as a right-wing charity—several of its board of directors had ties to or served in previous Republican administrations—the label was surely undeserved. Even ABC honored Father Ritter as its “Person of the Week.”

But only weeks after being feted by the first President Bush, New York City papers were filled with allegations that Father Ritter had had sex with former teenage participants; he was also reported to be using some of the charity’s money to pay for college tuition and other expenses for lovers and friends. In response, the organization’s board members hired top-drawer investigative and law firms to look into the accusations. In February 1990, Father Ritter stepped down. He never admitted to having any sexual relationships during his tenure, but as reporter Charles Sennott documented in Broken Covenant (1992), “The report confirmed that the `cumulative evidence’ against Ritter was ‘extensive:”

The scandal and its fallout were extremely damaging. Dozens of the nonprofit’s top staffers quit, and its operating budget plunged from $98 million in the late 1980s to $65 million in 1993. The question had arisen: Was Covenant House basically a sham?

With the organization reeling, Sister McGeady was tapped in late 1990 as its new president. Sister McGeady, a Daughter of Charity, devolved power to each of the local houses. And she broadened the organization’s fundraising base, raising vast sums from businesses and liberal interests such as the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (Father Ritter died two years ago. Sister McGeady says she never met him. “Once he left here, he left here,” she says.)

In the two days I spent at Covenant House, I regularly saw Sister McGeady in her office at company headquarters, where she’d sometimes be reading the New York Times, her office door wide open. In the room are framed photographs of her with former President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush. Like Mother Teresa, Sister McGeady has learned to work with the establishment while also maintaining an unestablishment stance that is to the left in economic matters but culturally and morally conservative. At the United Nations and in Vancouver, she has called for mandatory universal health care and a living wage. But her organization also promotes abstinence education and won’t drive women to clinics that provide abortions (though it will pick them up).

Sister McGeady, who is 73, grew up during the 1930s and 1940s in Washington, D.C. Her father worked as an engineer for the U.S. Interior Department, and the family of five lived in a row house in northeast Washington, in a racially integrated neighborhood. Sister McGeady attended parochial schools and says she first thought about becoming a nun as a fifth-grader, when she saw a picture of a nun caring for a sick child. After joining the Daughters of Charity after World War II, she worked in an orphanage and later became the associate director of Catholic Charities in Brooklyn.

“All my life I’ve been working in mental health,” she remarks. Sister McGeady isn’t a visionary or an entrepreneur. In her dozen years at the helm, Covenant House has added six branches—a fair number, but Father Ritter added 15. But Sister McGeady’s great contributions to the charity have been competence, accountability, and firmness—the qualities of the solid administrator. There have been no scandals under her watch, no questions about misconduct. The organization keeps growing and now has nearly 2,000 full-time employees.

Sister McGeady also knows how to raise money, although this year’s economic slump has diminished contributions. When I asked about the group’s fund-raising, she turned toward her computer and pulled up a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. A figure appeared on the screen: $107,134, yesterday’s contributions. Not bad, but less than the $125,000 the charity needs every day to survive. Last year’s financial picture was much rosier: Covenant House pulled in $117.9 million.

Leveling the Field

As long as religious nonprofits agree to careful oversight, their good works should be allowed to spread throughout the country with the help of federal funding. For as the Menninger study highlights, it makes no sense for the federal government to discriminate against church-based charities. Covenant House is one of the few religious charities that already receives federal funding. Most have had to find a way to do without it. As John DiIulio, former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, wrote last August in “Unlevel Playing Fields,” only 2 percent of the government’s social-service contracts are awarded to religious groups. Entire swaths of the federal government, with its roughly $2 trillion annual budget, give no money to religious groups. And yet organizations like Covenant House and Prison Fellowship Ministries have had demonstrable success in helping the disadvantaged.

The bias against them and other religious nonprofits isn’t based on the Supreme Court’s recent interpretation of the First Amendment, according to which government is supposed to remain neutral when awarding money to charities religious and nonreligious. Nor does it have anything to do with a concern for protecting the poor. It’s based instead on fear of religion and on the conviction that, outside of church, religious belief should remain not only invisible but inoperative.

But while religious groups may be the target of this prejudice, its real victims are the poor, whose needs are not always met by traditional state programs. No one can argue anymore that an organization like Covenant House doesn’t do important work—or that federal funding has compromised its religious identity. The only real question is whether the government can afford to cooperate with people who are motivated by faith. As the Menninger study shows, it will have to look hard to find a more effective motivation.


  • Mark Stricherz

    Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party.

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