In honor of Yahel’s 10th birthday and in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, we would like to honor our Alumni Community by taking a closer look at some of the important social change work they are involved in around the world. Over the next few weeks, we will be sharing interviews and conversations we’ve been having with Yahel alumni about the causes they address through their careers, the lessons learned, and the challenges and accomplishments along the way. Our first alumna for this series is Anna Brilliant, graduate of the Yahel Social Change Fellowship in Lod in 2018-2019. Anna is a Primary Youth Advisor at Covenant House in Newark, New Jersey where she works with homeless youth.
Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? What kind of community did you belong to? Where were you first exposed to homelessness or similar issues?
I grew up in New Jersey, about an hour from NYC, in an upper middle class town, predominantly white. As a girl scout I learned about and delivered food to a few homeless shelters in the area, but as kids we weren’t allowed to interact directly with the people living there. When I turned 16 I met a professor who had recently started a social justice initiative which included feeding the homeless people at the train station nearby. I got involved in the project and for first time I actually had a conversation with a homeless person. I met a girl who was my age and it just devastated me to know that she didn’t have a place to go home. Since then I developed an interest in the homeless population and started to question some of the stereotypes around them. I started to learn about all the barriers they really had.
After college I moved to Boston and volunteered at a homeless shelter for recovering mothers and their children, and I got a clearer idea of what homelessness can really look like. There are a lot of mothers and young kids and you’d never know that they were living in a shelter. I also learned that couch surfing is a form of homelessness -- people who have a roof over their heads, a shower and maybe even money but they don’t have a stable environment and are constantly looking for the next place to stay.
You now work for Covenant House in Newark, New Jersey. Tell us about the people that come to Covenant House. What are their ages, what kinds of families, homes and childhood circumstances do they come from?
The people we serve are ages 18-21. They have to be legal adults to stay at Covenant House; younger kids are considered government cases. The majority come from the surrounding Newark area, mostly African American, many Hispanic-Latino youth, many LGBTQ. One distinctive group is youth coming from psychiatric hospitals. People who have a mental health issue and once they’re discharged have nowhere to go, either because their families won’t take them back or for other reasons. We give them immediate shelter and help them obtain the services they need to continue their treatment. Another group is youth referred by the Department of Children Permanency and Planning – people who were taken out of their homes for various reasons as kids and lived in foster homes. Another group is youth who come from jail, juvenile detention, probation or parole. Finally, there are youth who just come in off the street, who’ve been kicked out of their homes for different reasons, their parents might also be homeless, they might be running away from dangerous situations. We get young women who are thrown out because they’re pregnant or kids who are kicked out because they’re LGBTQ and have nowhere else to go. Sometimes we also get undocumented immigrants. Most come from poor backgrounds, often with drug use in the family or among the kids themselves, the majority have gone through various forms of trauma and abuse.
(Pictured right: Anna with youth she volunteered with during her time as a Yahel fellow in Lod.)
What is the role of a Primary Youth Advisor? What does an average day at work look like for you? What do you enjoy? What do you find challenging or difficult?
Covenant House isn’t only a place where you eat and sleep, we talk a lot about being a community and residents are required to participate in this community. Covenant House strongly emphasizes that you always have a choice. Choices have consequences – either good or bad. The residents have to make their own choices. As a Primary Youth Advisor I am assigned a certain number of clients whom I help with designing and implementing personal Case Plans -- anything the client wants to accomplish while they’re at the shelter, both short and long term goals. Typically these goals can include finding employment, saving money, completing education, moving into independent or transitional living, improving behavioral health (physical health, mental health or substance abuse treatment). Our learning center offers lessons in financial literacy, job training and healthy relationships, and we have an art room and a music studio for self-expression and art therapy. My job is to make sure clients are staying on top of everything that they deemed necessary to be part of their Case Plan. I help them with their resumes, I help them apply for jobs, I make sure they’re going for their therapy and doctors’ appointments and filling out paperwork for health insurance. After they’ve been at the shelter for a few weeks I help them begin saving money and look at more permanent housing opportunities. Day to day I never really know what to expect – I feel like this is where my time in Israel prepared me very well. We are a crisis shelter and crisis definitely happens on a regular basis - often in the form of mental health breakdowns, fights or threats between kids or towards staff. The things I enjoy most about my work are accomplishments or interactions that might seem small but are actually really big for our youth. For example, I had a client who graduated high school recently. No one ever thought he would – not his teachers, not his parents and at certain points he didn’t think so either. And he did, which was incredible. Sometimes a kid will be excited because they applied to five jobs in one day, or made their first deposit and now begin to have savings, sometimes they’re just happy to see me and hang out which of course is always nice.
How do you handle crisis situations in the shelter?
If it’s a mental or physical health issue we provide immediate help as best as we can. If there are fights or threats it’s important to stay calm, ask the youth involved to step outside, explain that this behavior is inappropriate and won’t be tolerated -- that we understand that they’re upset, but this is not the appropriate way to handle the situation. In these cases we also have to keep others calm and away from the incident. After the initial intervention we decide about the best course of action, whether it’s calling a supervisor, contacting a crisis hotline, stepping aside and allowing another staff member to step in, or taking a kid to the hospital.
How long do people usually stay at Covenant House and where do they go afterwards?
On average, residents stay at the shelter for about three months, sometimes longer. It depends on how quickly we can help them find more permanent solutions. Usually people move into a transitional living program where they can stay for up to 18 months – different programs address different needs. There are transitional living programs for pregnant youth and young mothers or youth with mental health issues, and there is more independent transitional housing where residents are required to maintain a job to stay in the program. In some cases residents move into an apartment on their own, others reunite with family and sometimes people are asked to leave. Reuniting with family doesn’t happen often, and when it does a person will often move back home for a couple of weeks and then have to leave again. The hardest part about this job, for me, is when we have to ask people to leave. We are a place of sanctuary and if someone gets in a fight or starts making threats to residents or staff they simply can’t stay. It doesn’t mean they can’t come back to us at a later stage – many people do. We do our best to assist residents who are asked to leave with finding alternative shelter, but it is still extremely difficult to ask someone who has had to leave so many homes before to leave this one as well. We never want to put someone back on the street or in another shelter; what we really want is to see them succeed. Sometimes they’re just not ready for the structure that we have.
(Pictured left: Anna with Saquon Barkley, NY Giants football player, on one of his visits to Newark Covenant House.)
1 in 5 young adults who reach out to Covenant House are victims of human trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation. Tell us about the kind of support you offer a young person turning to you in this situation.
Trafficking in all its different senses is a reality for many of our kids, including drug trafficking, survival sex, and being sold or forced into the sex industry in all sorts of ways. Sometimes it will be a friend who will say ‘you know, if you have sex with this person he’ll give you $100’. If a young person is on the street for more than two weeks the chances that they will engage in trafficking of some sort is very high. They might not recognize it as such in the moment, there might be much more pressing issues for them which are being met through the trafficking, like a safe place to sleep, money or attention and love that they so terribly need. Even though the attention is ultimately toxic and false, kids coming from so much trauma don’t necessarily see it that way. When people come in to Covenant House, they are evaluated with our health team which includes assessing if they’ve been a victim of any type of trafficking. If they have, we make sure they get relevant medical attention and are given birth control; we also encourage them to engage in weekly therapy while they’re with us. Sex education is limited inside Covenant House since historically we are affiliated with the church, but we direct them to places outside the shelter where they can get more information on sexual health, planned parenthood, etc.
Homeless youth are often involved in survival crimes such as shoplifting for food or trespassing for shelter. Tell us a little bit about these circumstances.
I don’t know the statistics but from speaking to a lot of homeless youth most of them have engaged in things like this, often from a very young age. They steal food or diapers for their kids or siblings, or we’ve had police bring in youth who were found sleeping in abandoned buildings or libraries. Sometimes people come from gangs where participating in crime is a norm and it’s hard for them to remove themselves from that kind of behavior. We get a lot of youth who have been in jail, probation or parole for all sorts of similar crimes. I do my best to engage with each youth without judgement, as their criminal history does not reflect the whole image of who they are.
What are the challenges specific to Covid-19 reality? How has it changed the way the shelter operates and how, if at all, has it impacted the youth you see coming in?
Covid-19 is a really good example of the system failing people. We had to restructure the whole shelter to comply with social distancing rules – and since so many government agencies were closed for months, residents couldn’t get their Social Security Card, Birth Certificate or State ID, which are all necessary for finding legitimate employment. One of the stereotypes about homeless people is that they’re lazy and don’t want to work. The truth is that without multiple forms of identification you can’t get a job, and to obtain many of these IDs you need a permanent address or have to pay money and all sorts of other small details that simply don’t exist for a homeless person. Typically we’re able to help the youth obtain these documents within weeks of their arrival, but now it’s been taking months - which means they can’t get work for months, which pushes off how soon they can start saving and ultimately how soon they can move on to more permanent housing.
How has Covenant House been discussing Black Lives Matter and current political and social movements?
Since the majority of the people we serve are Black, they are directly affected by the current events. Many of our residents have had negative interactions with the law and with the police over the years. They have mixed emotions about what is going on in the world but don’t really know how to take action. I personally felt it was important to give them a safe space to discuss these issues and work to empower them to use their voices. I invited five kids to join me at one of the protests. We met the mother of Eric Garner, a man who was a victim of police brutality in 2014 in New York. The kids responded really well. Afterwards my supervisors asked me to implement a social justice curriculum at the shelter and in the following weeks we ran a discussion group. Two of our staff members who are black and male sat down with the kids and spoke openly about experiences they had with police and how they felt about them. They also spoke about rights and what you can do if you’re in a similar situation. Another step is helping the residents at the shelter register to vote, giving them information about how to make an educated vote and learn about candidates from reliable sources. It’s been a really great learning experience for me as well, understanding my place and my role -- how to help empower the kids without telling them what to do or what’s right and what’s wrong.
What draws you to working with some of society’s most raw and painful realities such as homelessness, human trafficking, drug abuse and neglect? I’m curious about what pulls you to these extremely harsh places?
I grew up always knowing that I wanted to help people. I’m reminded of Rabbi Levi Lauer [Yahel Educator for our course in Judaism and Social Justice], who taught us that you have to choose one community to help in life because it is impossible for one person to tackle all of the world’s injustices. It’s always been hard for me to know who to help. The homeless are very vulnerable people – they have really hit rock bottom and have no other choices or options left – and to me these are the people who need the help most. I also really enjoy working with kids and young adults – they’re funny and interesting, and you never really know what to expect. There is an innocence and love that they have that really draws me. It’s also very difficult to hear their stories. But I’m thankful that they trust me enough to be honest and share their stories with me, and it is extremely rewarding when I get to see them accomplishing their goals and overcoming challenges. I admit there are days when I feel a lot of personal satisfaction and pride. For example, when my client graduated high school, I felt like it was one of the biggest accomplishments of my life. I spent every shift helping him with his distance learning and homework. The system had failed him so many times, and to see how happy he was with his accomplishment – an accomplishment that really sets him up for a better future – was incredible.
For more information about homeless youth and the support offered through Covenant House internationally go to: covenanthouse.org