Kevin Riordan: Covenant House offers help to distressed young adults in Camden

The Rev. Steve Siniari of Covenant House drives through Camden offering help. The agency is using $250,000 in seed money donated by a physician, chairman of a Cooper Medical School department, and his wife. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
The Rev. Steve Siniari of Covenant House drives through Camden offering help. The agency is using $250,000 in seed money donated by a physician, chairman of a Cooper Medical School department, and his wife. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 05, 2012

High noon, downtown Camden.

The young blond woman staggering along Broadway in ultrashort shorts makes it clear she doesn't want any help.

But a block away, Maxine Bennett eagerly waves to the Covenant House van I'm riding in.

The privately funded nonprofit agency "really got me what I needed," says Bennett, 22, who on this occasion needs a ride to her Fairview home with daughter, Paris, 1.

"Things are getting better," Maxine says as we head south through the chaos of Broadway. "Covenant House is good people."

Headquartered in New York and long established in Newark, Atlantic City, and Philadelphia, Covenant House opened its East Camden office in April.

It provides outreach, case management, referral, and other services to clients between 18 and 22, most of whom are homeless. Many are also in trouble with substance abuse.

Covenant House has come to Camden because of $250,000 in seed money donated by vascular surgeon Jeffrey Carpenter and his wife, Judith, also a physician. They did not seek publicity for it.

"It seemed incongruous that Covenant House wasn't in New Jersey's most distressed city," says Jeffrey Carpenter, chairman of the department of surgery at the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University. He has been a board member of Covenant House New Jersey for years.

"This is a beachhead that will let other interested donors know that Covenant House is here," Carpenter says. "The need is great."

In the Federal Street office, which is close to an illegal drug operation, calls arrive regularly from young people wanting to get off drugs, off the street, or both. Some are victims of sexual abuse; others just need to get a GED or a job.

"They can't help what they're born into," service manager Mandi Cruz says. "We're in the business of helping them get on their feet."

Jennifer Ruiz, 35, of Lawnside, volunteers in the office and does outreach. A former client, she hopes to get hired full-time. Covenant House in Atlantic City changed her life.

"I love this organization," Ruiz says.

Success stories like hers are what keep the staff motivated, says Steve Siniari, a 62-year-old Greek Orthodox priest who's been with Covenant House New Jersey for 22 years.

So far, the Camden office has seen 145 clients - 93 at the storefront, and 52 through street outreach.

"All the normal touchstones we have to keep society civil aren't there for these kids," Siniari says from behind the wheel of the van. "We need a shelter for the kids in Camden in the worst way," he says.

(Covenant runs shelters in other cities, and other agencies run shelters for families and single adults in Camden, although none exclusively for young people.)

"If I could have one prayer answered, it would be to have a safe place where these kids could lay their heads," Siniari says.

On Broadway near Pine, people crisscross in and out of traffic. Many look desperate, others available for a price.

Maxine sits next to me, rummaging for her cellphone, then trying to make complicated arrangements to deliver a mattress to a friend.

After a shortcut via I-676, we arrive at the Workforce New Jersey office on Mount Ephraim Avenue, where Maxine is seeking a bus pass.

The onetime shopping center has been transformed into an office complex for public-assistance agencies of all sorts.

The parking lot is jammed with cars, and people are everywhere, smoking, talking into cellphones. It's a hive of activity where nothing is happening.

Maxine tells me she's been looking for a job.

"I'm going to start GED class on Sept. 5," she says.

I wish her luck.


Kevin Riordan:

To view video of outreach by Covenant House in Camden, go to:

www.philly.com/covenant


For information about Covenant House in Camden, call 856-757-9111.

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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