By Alexis Sullivan
“Because of a greater need, we saw an increase in services. We know in this time when everyone is shut in, there’s going to be an increase in domestic violence and sexual assault. That always is a driver for us and our census.” Richard Arnold, Director of Development & Communications at Covenant House New Orleans, said.
According to Arnold, the struggles of COVID-19 have helped bring the community at Covenant House closer together. Arnold said, “As much as we can, we are trying to be there for one another and support our kids. I think for many of our kids who may have come from an environment where they have been abused or there has been domestic violence, this is still a safe haven.”
“This” being an organization whose mission since 1972 is to provide safe housing and meals for youth experiencing homelessness.
Alisha, a resident at Covenant House New Orleans, has been using her time at Covenant House to focus on herself and her future. She does get lonely at times with the lack of congregation and emphasis on social distancing, however she tries not to dwell much on this.
“Since coming here I’ve tried to focus on me,” Alisha said. “There was a lot of negativity with other people in my life that was holding me back. Coming here made me hungry to work, to get my own place to live, and to become something better than what I used to be.”
COVID-19 has been wide reaching in its effects from threats to public safety to lay-offs to further loss of affordable housing to loss of healthcare to increases in domestic and street violence. These effects have caused many young people in the area to seek help and shelter at Covenant House.
After Hurricane Katrina, Covenant House saw similar trends with an increase in the number of intakes, an increase in violence, and an increase in need. The knowledge they gained through Hurricane Katrina has better equipped Covenant House for this crisis of COVID-19. Through tragedy, they learned.
In response to positive COVID-19 cases which began to sweep the nation in March 2020, stay-at-home and lockdown orders were put into effect. These events led to closures of many businesses and workplaces, as well as a decrease in economic activity in the United States.
The slowing of economic activity in the initial outbreak of COVID-19 sparked an increase in lay-offs across the country. According to an estimate by The Commonwealth Fund, as many as 7.7 million workers were laid-off with employee-sponsored insurance; including dependents that were covered by that insurance, a total of 14.6 million people have been affected.
Many businesses in New Orleans had to lay-off employees as a result of these executive orders, especially those within the hospitality industry. According to The Marketplace, the unemployment numbers in Louisiana went from 70,365 to 74,875 just between March 14 and March 21. On top of this, Louisiana pays one of the lowest amounts of weekly unemployment in the nation and has a general lack of state funding for the public.
Arnold said, “At the outbreak of the pandemic, 85% of our kids lost their employment because they are all in frontline jobs.” Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, many residents at Covenant House found employment within the hospitality industry.
Arnold said, “[The hospitality] industry has just been gutted, and our kids were the first ones, the easiest ones, to lay off because some of them are just working part-time on frontline staff. That was a real crisis for us.” Many of the residents laid-off from the hospitality industry, with help from the staff at Covenant House, have been able to find employment in other areas.
Arnold remains hopeful, however, that the hospitality industry will return: “Once this renaissance happens that we are all expecting, there should be a lot of opportunities for our kids in the hospitality sector.” In the meantime, staff at Covenant House New Orleans has encouraged laid-off residents to look at this experience as an opportunity to focus on their case management plans, counseling, and education.
“They may have a greater focus on their case plan for financial education or other forms of education, or other help with their life skills and management. So as much as we can, we have helped our young people focus their energy and time to be productive and be prepared for this renaissance that we hope will be coming,” Arnold said.
Residents at Covenant House have been utilizing many of the resources offered, especially the computers. Alisha, a resident at Covenant House said, “I already graduated and got a job quickly, but for other residents the computers have been helpful – using them for online classes and also for job searching.”
Another issue driving up census numbers for Covenant House is the general lack of affordable housing around New Orleans. Due to the steep increase in unemployment nationwide along with the threat to public safety that has disproportionately affected minority groups and those in poverty, gentrification of poorer neighborhoods has also increased.
According to Forbes, active small business owners decreased by 22% nationally from February to April 2020. Furthermore, active African American owned small businesses have declined by 41%, Latinx small businesses declined by 32%, and Asian owned small businesses declined by 26%.. The data shows that minority owned small businesses have been significantly more affected by COVID-19, which could ultimately lead to more unemployment and displacement within minority groups.
“Affordable housing has been a driver of our census growth for the past four or five years because it used to be that we could find apartments for our kids next door in the Upper Ninth Ward or Bywater, etc,” Arnold said.
Recently, however, most of the housing Covenant House has found for their residents has been across the river or in New Orleans East. This has been a growing concern for Covenant House and has continued to be a factor in census growth.
“Maybe now, it will be even harder to find an affordable apartment because there is going to be an explosion of Airbnb, and we will have more kids than ever. I don’t know,” Arnold said.
According to Covenant House New Orleans website, 78% of their residents are African American, and 72% of the staff are African American. The website goes on to say that African American youth are 83% more likely to experience homelessness. These numbers are already alarming, and the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 only adds to this concern.
Due to an increase of people in need, Covenant House New Orleans has remained open for 24/7 intake and has continued many of their community outreach programs in order to help the community as much as possible during this difficult time.
“We are still doing all the things we have always done,” Arnold said. “We still have an outreach team that goes under the bridges, community centers, Bourbon Street, and clubs, and all that.”
The outreach team has been practicing social distancing, wearing masks, and sanitizing hands often. They are trying to maintain this program as safely as possible. Arnold said, “They are passing out lunch kits and trying to spread the word that we are here. Nothing has really changed otherwise in regards to our policies other than the equipment and the plastic and the masks and all that.”
Internally, Covenant House New Orleans continues to offer residents assistance in applying for healthcare. All of their residents qualify for Medicaid, as they are below the income threshold to apply.
Arnold said, “One thing that our staff can do is to help them be eligible [for Medicaid], just like we help them with eligibility for food stamps. We help them with Medicaid applications and all that.”
There is a clinic onsite run by Tulane University that is open three days a week and offers medical care to residents at Covenant House. There are licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) and psychologists onsite to help address other areas of care for residents.
“It’s not just medical care, it is also behavioral healthcare, you know a prescribing psychologist is onsite LCSWs because there is a lot more support than just a visit to the doctor’s office that’s required for our young people” Arnold said. “In terms of eligibility, they’re all for the most part okay.”
As for vaccinations, directors at Covenant House New Orleans made the decision not to mandate the vaccine, partially due to their religious affiliation. However, Covenant House is strongly recommending the vaccine for residents and staff.
When the vaccines first began to roll out, Covenant House was on call for notifications of extra doses and would notify staff when extra doses were available. Recently, Covenant House was approved to receive vaccines for youth and staff and are highly encouraging vaccinations.
The current executive director, Rheneisha Robertson, is working to get a mobile unit onsite to administer vaccines to those who wish to receive one.
With public health in mind, Arnold said, “We are asking people to follow their conscience. [Getting vaccinated] is important, and we are strongly recommending it. But, we are not mandating it.”