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Covenant House program teams are constantly revisiting how to find and connect with more unhoused young people, including creating innovative approaches to meet youth where they are. Covenant House New Jersey is developing a whole new way to do that using text messaging. 

Offering young people the option to connect with Covenant House via texting makes it more likely they will contact us. “They’re more comfortable texting. It’s easier for them than making a phone call,” says Anna Brilliant, a primary youth advisor at CHNJ.

“Young people were calling us on their cell phones, and when we called back, they didn’t always answer — but they would text us back,” says Senior Development Manager Jen Williams. “That’s how we came to realize that this was their preferred way of communicating with us.” 

Although the COVID pandemic wasn’t the impetus for building the texting option, during the past year all service management staff at CHNJ were trained to use the program. So, all primary youth advisors, front desk staff, supervisors, overnight advisors, independent living and behavioral health specialists, transitional living advisors, even per diem and part-time staff were all trained to respond to incoming texts.

“Youth can text from a phone, and their messages come to our computers. A staff person manages the account until they log out, and then another person takes over. This way, we have coverage 24/7 and young people can text us at any time of the day or night,” Anna says.

“We answer the texts as quickly as possible and don’t leave anyone on hold,” she explains. “We ask the young person their name, age, location (so we can determine which of our New Jersey sites are closer to them), what kind of services they need, and whether they have a safe place to stay right now.”

During the pandemic and since then, Jen notes, “The texting capability has allowed us to make and maintain connections, build trust, and build relationships with young people. They’re amazed that we text them back. It’s like, ‘These people are actually reaching back out to me!”

And there have been unanticipated benefits. “One young man texted CHNJ looking for services and when he arrived, we found his jaw had been wired shut after an injury. The text feature was very helpful to him,” Anna recalls. “So an unanticipated benefit was learning how the text option could help a young person overcome a barrier like that to get the services they need.”

Over the past year, more than 330 messages have come to CHNJ by way of text. They were from young people looking for help, family and friends seeking to refer a youth, and from community partners and CHNJ supporters — which speaks to another way texting has enhanced CHNJ’s ability to reach and connect with the greater community.

The system of which the text option is a part allows staff to save contacts and accounts and to socialize that information among the service staff. As a primary youth advisor, Anna can add contact information for school social workers and local agencies and organizations that can either help us reach more young people or provide services in addition to our own.

“It will allow us to send mass emails to our community partners. We can let them all know we have beds available and they can write us back if they know of a youth who needs a safe place to stay,” Anna says.

Growing that list of community partners is a new focus of Anna’s work, and she is expanding it to include gyms, recreation centers, libraries, and other places where young people experiencing homelessness might hang out. 

Jen notes that while the virtual world may often seem impersonal, “if we’re going to meet young people where they are, this is where they are, and we have to use their means.” 

At Covenant House New Jersey, using current technology offers one more way to advance our mission to relentlessly support young people facing homelessness and trafficking. But no matter how we reach those young people, Jen says, “Some things don’t change. They are always met with respect, consistency, welcome, and safety. And we are always open, 24/7.”

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