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The Cove on Washington Avenue offers services for local homeless youth.

How have homeless youth “sheltered in place?” It’s messy.

When the Waco community began to shelter in place in mid-March, The Cove’s staff and social-work case managers began calling every student in our caseload. At that time, every teenager we could reach was sheltered, meaning they had a “safe-enough” place to stay with a family member or friend. Remember, youth homelessness regularly means lacking a fixed, adequate and regular place to stay. We began calling students two or three times a week to see if there was anything they needed such as food, hygiene items, school supplies or just a caring adult to talk to.

In those early days, we heard a lot of, “I’m OK. I’m sleeping a lot and bored. But I don’t need anything.” Cove case managers mapped out the closest Waco Independent School District meal site and determined if students could feasibly walk to pick up breakfast and lunch. If not, our team and volunteers began delivering Waco ISD meals, food from our friends at Shepherd’s Heart and hygiene supplies in no-contact dropoffs we call Cove Care Visits. For about six weeks, things carried on in this way — a steady stream of basic support that turned into a total of 957 meals delivered to 33 students and 112 check-in calls. Sure, many students had lost their jobs, some were staying in motels and most were eating meals out of pop-top cans, but they were safe enough and doing their best to access their schoolwork on their phones, waiting out the uncertainty just like the rest of us.

But about two weeks ago, matters took a turn for the worse. On the other end of the line, we heard things like, “I can’t stay here anymore.” Or “I met a new boyfriend online and he wants me to come meet him in Dallas.” Or, sickeningly, the number we had been calling is no longer in service and we aren’t sure where that student even is right now. On the bright side, we have also heard things like, “It’s actually been good. I have felt God’s peace.”

Like I say, it’s messy.

Many people have asked how they can help in this time of crisis, and that speaks volumes to our community’s distinctiveness. The answer is straightforward: Financial gifts to The Cove remain the No. 1 way to ensure we can provide individualized support to young people facing complex situations. Secondly, follow The Cove on social media @thecovewaco to stay current on students’ practical needs and how you can meet them. Finally, keep doing what you’re doing, Waco. We are a community determined to care for the most vulnerable among us. That is a good thing, because it’s going to take all of us to rebuild together.

Kelly Atkinson is executive director of The Cove — Heart of Texas, a teen-nurturing center designed to provide a safe space for students experiencing homelessness. It provides access to the resources they need to thrive. Homeless youth, sometimes referred to as “unaccompanied” youth, are individuals under the age of 18 who lack parental, foster or institutional care.

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