×

Covenant House in W.Va. has been helping people for 40 years

Covenant House Property Manager Phil Haimen, Executive Director Ellen Allen and Program Director Briana Martin pose front of Covenant House on Shrewsbury Street in Charleston, W.Va., on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. Covenant House in W.Va. has been helping people for 40 years. (Chris Dorst/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Darryl Henry’s secret power is simple.

“I’m good at organizing chaos,” said Henry.

It’s the silver lining on a childhood with a lot of dark clouds.

The eleventh of 14 kids, he was the tenth boy born into a hectic family with two parents working multiple jobs and not enough time to discipline anyone — particularly the older siblings.

“They used me for a punching bag,” said Henry. “Not in a good way.”

As he got bigger, he learned not to hide, back down or run away.

He learned to fight.

“It didn’t matter how old they was, because I had no more fear of people. So that made it easy for me to hurt people,” he said.

Which isn’t the kind of thing you expect to hear from the gentle person he is today. A person who has found his inner strength, and learned to focus it for a greater good.

But it took overcoming his demons, not just once, but twice. Having it all, and then losing it all.

Today, at 61, he is a service center worker at Covenant House, which serves Charleston’s neediest population: those who are homeless, at risk of becoming homeless, or lacking in basic necessities like food or clothing.

He’s also a shining example of the kind of transformation that’s been at the very heart of the Covenant House mission for the last 40 years.

Because the first time he walked through the doors there, he wasn’t a job applicant.

He was a client, just looking for a way to get off the streets of Charleston for a couple of hours.

(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)

Back in 1981, Covenant House was an offshoot of the Manna Meal soup kitchen, a collective of Christian churches and a Jewish temple that joined forces to create a centralized location for services, rather than sending people with limited resources scurrying all over town on an exhaustive search for help.

It was a tiny building that served as a clearinghouse for a long list of other needs.

“It was quite cozy and kind of on top of each other, but it certainly served the purpose,” said Phil Hainen, the property manager and — with 21 years under his belt — the longest-serving employee on staff.

He’s made a life of working with disadvantaged peoples, including a stint as a Capuchin Franciscan Monk whose first assignment was in Charleston. He landed at Covenant House about a year before a capital campaign that secured the current location on Shrewsbury Street many times the size of that original place.

“With more space, we were able to take on more employees and programs started to expand exponentially,” he said.

Which was a good thing, because with the opioid epidemic, “It got tremendously more challenging,” said Hainen.

Pre-pandemic, they went from seeing 75 people on a busy day to serving upwards of 200. Today they have a food pantry, housing assistance, financial help for those at risk of eviction or having utilities cut off, and a mini medical clinic run by HealthRite on site.

A few years back, he said, there was a couple who underscored for him the significance of the work they are doing every day.

“Initially they had a car and they were camping out in the car and eventually I guess maybe sold the car or whatever. But they I didn’t have any place to go. … literally they were camping on our parking lot and we moved them into a house that we have on the East End,” he said.

When the man’s son lost his mother, the boy was able to come live with them, making it truly a family home.

“They are so appreciative to be able to have a place basically to call their own,” said Hainen.

“Most that come here are in need of something, whether it is just someone to talk to or it is an actual service, most are in need of something,” said Ellen Allen, the executive director.

She no longer hands cash to people standing on street corners with cardboard signs — something she sees as enabling detrimental behavior, rather than actually helping.

Instead, she encourages those who want to help to give through an organization with the structures in place to offer solutions. And she wants people to know that Covenant House is a good steward of the donations they receive, paying staff what she called a livable wage with an administrative overhead of just 16%.

She’s been at the helm for 10 years, overseeing what she called an evolution “to really up our game and find housing for people and make it a place for people who really are ready to start helping themselves somewhat. You can come here and do that.”

Not everyone is ready to make big life changes when they first walk in the door.

“For us as service providers, we have to be willing to meet people where they are,” said Briana Martin, a program director with a background in behavioral health.

“And so if that individual at that moment isn’t ready to work on that, it doesn’t matter how much I want them to work on it. It won’t happen until their time.”

Martin said the goal is for clients who come in for one service to want something better for themselves.

Which is exactly what happened to Darryl Henry.

(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)

Henry had been sober for more than a decade, with a girlfriend, four children and a job as a certified cement mason.

“I got too comfortable with my sobriety. I thought, ‘What the hell? One ain’t gonna hurt.’ But you know the old saying. ‘One’s too many and a thousand’s not enough,'” he said.

It didn’t take long to lose it all.

“It’s like you blow the candle out and you relight. It just rekindled all the addictive behaviors that I had. I lost my job. I lost my car. I lost my girlfriend, lost my kids, and I ended back up on the streets, living in shelters.”

And he stayed that way for a while, only going to Covenant House for the creature comforts that were offered there.

There ain’t many places to go when you’re homeless. And this place was open to the public,” he said.

After a while, he just wanted something more. Something that was his.

“I got tired of waking up every morning. I wasn’t even waking up. I was coming to from being so blasted the night before,” he said.

“I got tired of not having nothing, waking up to nothing, going to bed and going to sleep with nothing and having nothing to look forward to. If you don’t want nothing that’s what you end up with.”

He started going to First Baptist Church, volunteering — which gave him structure.

“I had somewhere to go and something positive to do,” he said. “It started making me feel good about myself.”

He got into the Housing First program at Covenant House, started volunteering around the place.

“My boss, Miss Ellen, she’s seen something in me, and she offered me a part-time job,” he said, unmistakable pride in his voice.

“She asked me if I would kind of keep things safe around here. And I told her, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ And I’ve been doing it ever since. I make sure that the employees are safe. The client are safe. Make sure everybody follow the rules, respect the rules. And I’m pretty good at that.”

It’s as if those hard lessons from all those years ago have come full circle. He’s not afraid of confrontation. Doesn’t back down from a fight. And because of that, a fight is rarely needed.

“I don’t have to argue with you to get my point across,” he said.

He’s been at Covenant House for seven years now — about the time he met someone who made life really worth living again.

“No way I could’ve landed her doing the things I was doing,” he said, shaking his head with a grin.

They’ve been married for five years now. He lives just a few blocks from the shelter where he used to live. But it’s a world away from that life.

“I don’t know what Miss Ellen saw in me, but I’m glad she was there to see it.”