In 1982, Fort Lauderdale concerned community individuals led by Judge Estella Moriarty and Joseph Sciortino asked Covenant House to open a program near Fort Lauderdale Beach to address the growing number of homeless and runaway youth who were migrating to the beach area. In 1983, Covenant House Florida incorporated in Fort Lauderdale. Local citizens held special events to raise money for the purchase of the Sand Castle Motel on Breakers Avenue, which would ultimately become the CHF crisis shelter. Under the leadership of executive director Nancy Lee Matthews, Covenant House Florida opened its doors on September 24, 1985 and has provided emergency shelter and crisis counseling to a steadily increasing number of homeless and runaway youth, including teen parents and their babies, ever since.
Over the next few years following the opening, in an effort to address the ever-changing needs of this vulnerable population, CHF began offering a variety of additional on-site programs, like G.E.D classes to assist older youth in attaining high school equivalency certification. A program was established – the Covenant House Addictions Management Project (CHAMP) – to help kids who came to the shelter with drug and alcohol problems. And to help the youth who were almost ready to make it on their own, CHF started Rights of Passage, a long-term transitional living program. CHF also began to provide street outreach in vans.
In 1991, a group of charitable young people came together to form the Young Professionals for Covenant House, a fundraising auxiliary dedicated to raising money and awareness for Covenant House Florida. Since their inception, this group has raised nearly two million dollars for the cause and has dedicated countless volunteer hours, especially during their signature monthly Kid’s Fun Night events, where they visit the shelter for hands on recreational activities with the youth.
Covenant House Florida expanded to central Florida in 1995, opening a community service center in downtown Orlando. The need for services was great, and CHF responded by opening a residential crisis shelter in 2000 under the leadership of Executive Director David Spellman. The community service center relocated to the shelter and both have since seen hundreds of youth seeking refuge.
In 2003, Covenant House Florida was operating two shelter sites offering a total of 152 beds. It was that year that James M. Gress stepped into the role of executive director, where he remains to this day. Gress had been instrumental since the very beginning – he was one of the very first people hired at Covenant House Florida. Having served in various positions within the program, and distinguished by his instrumental role in the opening of the Orlando program, Gress led the organization into one of its most distressing periods –the extensive damage to the Fort Lauderdale shelter by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. After a long and arduous rebuilding phase, though, the work of Covenant House Florida prevailed.
The recession of 2009 impacted the programs and services at Covenant House Florida, reducing the total bed capacity from 152 to just under 100. Kids are lining up for services, but lack of funding has created the need for waiting lists at both shelters.
In the late 1960’s, a Franciscan priest, the Reverend Bruce Ritter, made a life-changing decision – one that would not only alter his own life, but ultimately the lives of thousands of homeless kids for years to come.
Father Ritter was a tenured professor at Manhattan College when he made the important choice to step down from his post in order to begin a new ministry. He and his colleague, Father James Fitzgibbon, moved into a dilapidated tenement building in New York City’s East Village, and along with a handful of friends, former students, and neighbors, began an effort to serve the city’s poor. By 1970, Father Fitzgibbon had moved on to devote more time to drug counseling and other community ministries, but Father Ritter remained. Adrian Gately, Patricia Kennedy, and Paul Frazier joined him to create the Covenant Community. Two years later in 1972, Covenant House was officially incorporated with its first intake center established at 504 LaGuardia Place in New York City.
Now an established non-profit, Covenant House began to fundraise, using the monies to shelter homeless kids in lower Manhattan and on Staten Island. In 1976, Father Ritter announced plans to create a multi-service center near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Covenant House then acquired a group of buildings on West 44th Street and moved its administrative offices to the new location.
Throughout the late 1970s, Covenant House continued to expand its social service programs in New York City and by 1980 was ready to branch out to other places. For the next two decades, Covenant House grew at an exhilarating pace under the leadership of Sister Mary Rose (1990-2003) and Sister Tricia Cruise (2003-2008), opening Crisis Centers in 20 more cities in the United States, Central America, and Canada.
Currently under the leadership of Kevin Ryan, Covenant House served more than 50,000 homeless kids last year, giving them the love and support they need to find their way off of the streets.