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Covenant House Struggles with a Troubled Life - Its Own

March 11, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ Twenty-two years after Covenant House started sheltering children from the streets, the nation’s largest program for young runaways is struggling with another troubled life: its own.

Torn by allegations of sexual impropriety that forced the resignation of its charismatic founder, the $87 million-a-year operation has postponed some expansion plans and steeled itself for a drop in donations.

The scrutiny also has revealed criticism from a new source: social welfare professionals who question its style of service.

Critics agree Covenant House helps fill the urgent need of sheltering homeless youths; each night, about 2,000 runaways sleep in its centers in six U.S. cities, Latin America and Canada.

But some say Covenant House’s main thrust - short-term stays in institutional settings - represents triage rather than treatment. Others complain that its Roman Catholic philosophy precludes sex education that could help stem the spread of AIDS.

Some critics accuse its counselors of harassing homosexual youths, and others charge the organization with institutional arrogance, saying it virtually ignores other privately operated programs.

″They fill the hallways and then call the press in and say, ’There’s kids on the floor, we need more money,‴ said Marion Reidel, clinical director at the Emergency Shelter, a much smaller program for runaways in New York. ″They’re notorious for not networking with the other programs in town.″

Since December, a series of former clients has stepped forward to accuse Covenant House’s 62-year-old founder, the Rev. Bruce Ritter, of sexual misconduct.

One youth claimed to have received money and gifts from Ritter, and Covenant House has conceded trying to start him off in a new life by giving him the identity of a dead 10-year-old boy, without asking the dead boy’s parents. Ritter has denied wrongdoing, but Franciscan officials ordered him to take a leave of absence while they investigated. On Feb. 27, he resigned. The next day, prosecutors said they had found ″questionable financial transactions″ at Covenant House, but none meriting prosecution.

Covenant House gets 95 percent of its funds from private donations, relying on appeals written by Ritter and mailed monthly to 800,000 past or potential supporters.

Donations fell, recovered and fell again as the allegations surfaced and subsided. Now Covenant House officials are uncertain - and deeply worried - about the effect of Ritter’s departure.

″There’s a real question as to whether Covenant House will be able to grow and expand as it has, or whether Covenant House will be put into a period of retrenchment for some time,″ said Frank Macchiarola, who served briefly as acting president before resigning, also on Feb. 27, because of friction with the organization’s board.

Covenant House operates large shelters in New York; New Orleans; Houston; Los Angeles; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Anchorage, Alaska; and Toronto, and orphanage-style shelters in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama.

Plans to establish a shelter in Washington are on hold, but expansions in Los Angeles and New Orleans are proceeding and a counseling center in Dallas just opened.

Despite the organization’s longstanding practice of spending almost all of each year’s income, Covenant House officials said its finances are basically sound and no cutbacks are envisioned.

But the criticism of its programs appears likely to continue.

″We have this kind of mixed feeling toward the Covenant House,″ said Fred Griesbach, head of the Coalition for the Homeless.

While the rate of AIDS is ″astronomical″ among runaways, Greisbach said, Covenant House does not encourage using condoms to stem the disease’s spread but instead counsels abstinence.

″They’re not going to deal with it in what I think is a rational way,″ he said. ″We think it’s counterproductive. You need to talk about condoms, about abortion, about birth control that goes beyond abstinence.″

Macchiarola said Covenant House’s handling of birth control and sex education is guided by principle. ″The policy we follow is church policy,″ he said. ″We have to proceed off what we think is right.″

Covenant House’s main purpose is to provide emergency shelter for a few days or weeks to runaways who often return to the street. But critics say smaller, more intensive programs have more success helping youngsters find a new life.

″Young people are supposed to be in a family-type environment,″ Reidel said. ″They’re not supposed to be institutionalized. They don’t belong in large buildings.″

Covenant House’s Manhattan shelter, in tawdry Times Square, fails to remove youngsters from the dangers and temptations of street life and is too big for effective individual counseling, she said.

The Manhattan shelter was designed for 250 youths but often sleeps more than 300, some on roll-out pads in lounges. Macchiarola said Covenant House’s reluctance to refer youths elsewhere reflects its open-door policy.

″The moment our people think they should refer kids elsewhere is the moment we’ve taken a different attitude,″ he said.

After a brief stay, two-thirds of the shelter’s visitors return to the street, where some meet an early death from drugs, disease or violence. The others return to families, find their own place to live or enter long-term residential programs.

Covenant House also operates a 150-bed long-term residence in New York, and other organizations run similar, smaller programs.

″And there are advantages to that smallness,″ said Susan Mullgrav, special projects director at the city Department of Youth Services. ″It’s more personalized. It’s more individualized.″

Yet given the scope of the problem - with an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 homeless runaway youths nationwide - Mullgrav and others concede large shelters do fill the most urgent needs: A bed, a meal and someone to talk to.

″Covenant House has been necessary, in spite of their programmatic problems, because they’re one of the few agencies that has that number of beds,″ said Reidel. ″It is better than sleeping on the streets.″

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