A week before Thanksgiving, 164 Atlanta business executives were issued a cardboard box and a sleeping bag, then settled down for the night on the cold, wet pavement outside Covenant House.
The exercise was part of a national movement to end youth homelessness here and across the country, while raising money that goes directly to getting kids off the street.
It’s called a sleepout, and besides raising money and awareness, organizers hope participants will overnight gain a genuine empathy for vulnerable communities and the homeless through their experience, and, if they’re really lucky, lead to continuous and sustainable social change.
We can all hope, but there’s no way really to know what it’s like to be homeless unless you’ve been there. I participated in a similar effort one night in 2009 with a group of kids from the Paideia School. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I knew I could gather up my things any moment and go home.
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Not only did I have a key to unlock the door, I was certain there was no boogeyman on the other side.
For nearly half of her life, Kaye Muse knew nothing of the sort. The only thing certain in her life from the time she was a toddler until, well, just a few years ago was uncertainty, abuse and neglect.
Once her mother became addicted to drugs, it was all downhill from there.
She was just 2 when an uncle from Washington state showed up and took her in, but it wouldn’t last. Nothing ever did.
After two years, she was in Louisiana couch surfing. A few nights at an aunt’s, a few with her grandmother, a few with a cousin.
“That was my life,” she said recently.
Except there was more. In the years between her sixth and ninth birthdays, Muse was physically, verbally and sexually abused.
Then her uncle reappeared and took her in again. She even had her own room. Things were better until they weren’t.
“I’m not sure what was happening in the household, but my uncle and his wife were going through a rocky time,” Muse said. “His wife kicked me out.”
Muse was 12 then. Her seventh-grade teacher took her in until the school year ended, when she was shipped back to Louisiana.
Just as Katrina blew in, Muse learned her uncle was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and passed the following year. She was 14 and completely alone.
“He was my saving grace,” she said.
There was more couch surfing. Muse reached out to the teacher who’d taken her in, and she welcomed her back to Washington, where she remained until 2009, when she graduated from Spanaway Lake High School before heading to Florida to become a live-in nanny for her teacher’s daughter.
Muse dreamed of becoming a reporter, so she enrolled at the University of South Florida, but that didn’t pan out either. In 2011, she took a job as a personal assistant in Atlanta and, well, before the end of the year, Muse was right back where she started. Alone.
She called 411, looking for a shelter, and was told to call 211. The person on the other end of the phone told her to call Covenant House, and things started to look up.
Muse went through every phase of the nonprofit’s programming — its 90-day crisis shelter, rites of passage and scattered site, which allows homeless men and women to live at apartment complexes at a reduced rate.
During the last months of the program, Muse was offered an internship that led to a contract job, which led to her current consulting position at Accenture, a professional services company with a strong focus on technology and innovation. Since joining Accenture eight months ago, Muse has moved into a permanent apartment home and still works with Covenant House as the local relationship manager, coordinating Accenture’s volunteer efforts with them.
“I got to pick out my own furniture, everything,” she said. “I work a lot but my life is more stable now and I don’t have to guess where I’m going to live. I have a place to call home.”
Muse gives all the credit to Covenant House, but there’s no denying she’s equally responsible. Without the will to do better, to be better, she would not have made the transition from homelessness to apartment dweller.
Covenant House, she said, cared enough to will her to succeed, to move forward, to keep doing well.
Listening to Muse, you know the will developed long before she arrived at Covenant House. It was born inside of her every time she found herself outside in the cold with no key to open the door.
“That’s the real journey,” she’d admit later. “You develop a sense of hopelessness. You forget what a warm place feels like because the chill is in your bone.”
Covenant House Georgia is a subsidiary of Covenant House International, the largest privately funded nonprofit service organization serving homeless young people in America.
Here in Georgia, it has been providing food, shelter, counseling, education and vocational training to homeless, runaway and trafficked youths since 2000.
Last year alone, the agency served more than 1,500 homeless, runaway and trafficked youths.
You can’t do that without money. Whether you believe one night on the cold, wet pavement is enough to make a difference or not, that’s why sleepouts are so vital.
Covenant House officials hope just one night on the cold, wet pavement is enough to make Atlanta business executives understand this in a way that causes them to give.
Muse hopes one night is enough.
A PARTIAL LISTING OF COMPANY PARTICIPANTS
Arthur M. Blank Foundation
Delta Air Lines