A FORMERLY unhoused man has shared how he went from begging as a four-year-old to becoming a well-known published author thanks to resources like Covenant House.
He was among more than 6,000 people in 17 cities who spent the night sleeping on the streets on November 16 as part of the annual Covenant House Sleep Out.
The event, which saw participants sleep on the ground with a sleeping bag, more essentials than some unhoused individuals have, took place during Youth Homelessness Awareness Month.
“Covenant House is going to be the catalyst for ending youth homelessness,” the organization’s International President and CEO Bill Bedrossian said in remarks to participants at Times Square.
“What you’re doing tonight matters.”
Covenant House was founded in 1972 and works to end youth homelessness by providing support, shelter, and resources to those in need.
Funds raised for the organization – including more than $1.5 million during the 2023 Sleep Out campaign – keep the doors to their shelters open 24 days a week, 365 days per year.
The Sleep Out kicked off in New York City’s Times Square – marking the first time the event was held at the Crossroads of the World – just after 9pm with speeches and a procession of banner holders containing messages about its importance.
Several people took the stage, including Covenant House alumni.
One alum described the “heavy burden lifted from my shoulders” upon entering the shelter.
Another shared her story of walking through the Covenant House shelter doors in New York in 1996 at age 16 with a newborn son.
Support staff helped her secure an apartment, which she remained in for 25 years, and taught her essential life skills that she was able to pass on to her three children.
“They made me feel at home. This was a pivotal moment for me, a second chance,” she said.
‘START OF HEALING’
David Ambroz shared his story on the Sleep Out stage.
He recalled being four years old and begging on the Metro North train line while living under Grand Central Station with his mom, brother, and sister.
“Not a single person looked at me and the message was so clear: Your life doesn’t matter,” Ambroz recalled of those early days.
Ambroz lived that way for 12 years.
But after finding his way out, he went on to land a scholarship to study at Vassar College and later graduated from UCLA School of Law.
Ambroz co-founded FosterMore.org, an organization that unites the entertainment industry with other foundations and nonprofits to raise money for and awareness of foster children and their needs.
In addition, Ambroz documented his story in a memoir called A Place Called Home.
“I chose to share my story because people are walking past it,” Ambroz said during his remarks on Thursday night.
Covenant House offers the “start of healing” for so many, he continued.
“We are literally at a crossroads. Other than the laws of physics, everything is a choice,” Ambroz said.
“We don’t have to choose to live like this. I demand we make a different choice.”
WHY WE SLEEP OUT
After listening to the speeches and observing a candle-lighting ceremony, several first-time and returning Sleep Out participants shared with The U.S. Sun why they decided to give up their beds for the night.
Jen Rivera, a first-time Sleep Out participant with a group of about 13 coworkers, said her company brought the event to her attention.
“We did our own little personal fundraising,” Rivera said.
“We did like bake sales in the office, any kind of way we could get into people’s pockets.”
Rivera approached the night hoping to bring awareness to others.
“I think for me, I think we tend to always want more,” she said.
“And I think something as simple as sleeping in Times Square is gonna, I hope, bring awareness to people that what we have is enough.”
Sofia Torriente, another first-time Sleep Out participant who was there with a coworker, wanted to learn more about the epidemic of homelessness and how people can help those affected.
“I’d like to hear about people’s times and experiences and also be able to be in community with other people who’ve been motivated by this cause,” she said.
Linda K. Edwards, a first-timer, is the founder of New Me New You, an organization that helps educate, enrich, empower, and inspire others.
She decided to attend the Sleep Out because it aligned with so many of her personal values and her mission within her own organization.
“What I’m hoping to take away from this experience is just to be more humble and to learn, to acknowledge all people in any aspect of where they are in life. I’m excited,” she shared.
Nick Ribovich was returning for his seventh Sleep Out.
“It’s a cause that’s very important to me and it’s always an event that’s very special and that I really enjoy.”
Ribovich shared his belief that people like himself continue to return to the event because of their loyalty to Covenant House and how moving it is to experience a Sleep Out.
“I think people feel a really strong connection to do it, and feel a desire to come back and help in any way they can,” he said.
Another returner, Robert Sturnialo, had a different reason for wanting to Sleep Out.
“It touches home for me. I came from an impoverished family and it’s meant a lot to me, just from my roots alone,” he shared.
“And seeing what good we can do for other people, giving back. It’s tremendous. I’ve been fortunate in life and to be in a position where I can give back, is very worthy to me.”
Sturnialo was there with two of his friends, one of whom chimed in: “We are sleeping out for those kids. They inspire us. The karma just continues to spread.”
I opted to participate in the entirety of the Sleep Out instead of leaving after the 9 pm programming.
It was strange to do pieces of my nighttime routine from the comfort of my apartment and then journey to Times Square for Sleep Out check-in.
It was also interesting to take stock of what it felt like to see people out and about celebrating a Thursday night in New York City knowing that I was bundled up and ready to brace the cold and energy of Times Square overnight.
That perspective shift was the first of many I expected to experience.
The actual Sleep Out began around 9:30 pm or so when sleepers were directed to their designated area to retrieve bags of provided essentials and set up their spot.
About 20 Covenant House volunteers and staffers were on hand to facilitate the event and remained there throughout the night.
Participants received a light dinner and, later, breakfast courtesy of Chick-fil-A, Krispy Kreme, and Starbucks – something unhoused individuals do not have the luxury of receiving.
By 11 pm, some were settling in to sleep while others were getting to know one another over their newly formed bond.
It was around this time I retrieved my bag of provided goods and set up camp.
I was, quite literally, in the middle of a bustling Times Square, surrounded by blinding billboards and relentless noise – things that are both endearing but less than ideal when attempting to sleep.
Covenant House provided all participants with sleeping bags, branded mats, blankets, a sleep mask from WestPoint, and a journal for reflecting throughout the event.
While I was tired before the event, being in the midst of Times Square really woke me up. My adrenaline was pumping after attending the programming and chatting with fellow participants.
As I settled into my designated sleeping space with my provided items, I was struck by how vulnerable it is to sleep in such a public space.
Sleep is one of our most natural uninhibited states. It made me think about how many unhoused people don’t have options and will sleep wherever they can find shelter, whether that’s under a theater’s marquee, a set of steps, or a subway car.
Even in Times Square, I had the privilege to hide deep in a sleeping bag and turn away from the crowds, when most others don’t have that choice. That was another humbling aspect of the Sleep Out experience.
As far as actual sleep, I managed a few hours between cars backfiring, horns, music blaring, and people shouting.
It was definitely difficult to actually fall asleep and stay asleep and made me think about those who don’t get to rest peacefully at night.
The few hundred of us who slept out got lucky because it was a relatively mild night for mid-November, with temperatures only dipping into the mid-40s. We didn’t have to brave the elements as so many do.
At about 5:30 am, participants woke up and gathered to share reasons for sleeping out and reflections on the experience before parting ways.
One person shared that the perspective of being on the ground and experiencing the city from that vantage point had the biggest impact on her, noting that most people don’t ever even sit on the ground in Times Square.
The Sleep Out was a profound experience and not something I’ll soon forget.
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