Residence hall offers homeless students unique ‘safe haven’
By JUSTINE LOFTON
AP Member Exchange
MUSKEGON– Going to school could have become an afterthought when Shakuur Collins became homeless last summer.
Fortunately, he was attending one of few schools in Michigan that offers a residence hall for its homeless students. He moved into Covenant Hall during July 2018, and graduated from Muskegon Covenant Academy in December. Now he’s a student at Muskegon Community College studying business.
“Being here — not being homeless after becoming homeless — it’s a lot of change,” Collins, 21, said to MLive.com. “I had to see that I wasn’t on my own. It’s like a safe haven. They help with a lot of things in a way that we haven’t been helped before.”
Collins is one of 19 residents at Covenant Hall in Muskegon.
He might not have earned a high school diploma without Covenant Academy, a charter school that caters to dropouts ages 16-22. He likely wouldn’t be attending college if not for Covenant Hall, he said.
“When they don’t have housing, the last thing on their mind is to go to school,” said Sam Joseph who founded Covenant Hall and the Covenant Academy, which has locations in Muskegon, Kalamazoo and Saginaw.
Muskegon Covenant Academy was founded in 2014, and opened its residence hall during July 2017.
The idea was that giving students a place to live would boost attendance, Joseph recently told a room full of donors during an 18-month update on the hall.
Housing was brought to the forefront soon after the Muskegon academy opened in 2014 when Mia Clark-Grissom, the school’s retention manager, attributed low attendance to homelessness, he said.
The model is “bearing fruit,” Joseph said.
“This is breaking very important barriers that they have,” he said. “We need to help them because we can help them.”
Muskegon Covenant has about 230 students and 180 graduates.
Those who live at Covenant Hall must be current Covenant Academy students or graduates pursuing additional education or training.
The hall had a slow start, Joseph said. There were fewer than 10 residents for the first six months. The capacity is 22.
When the hall opened, it housed seven students, four of whom were diagnosed with mental illness, Joseph said. Mental illness and homelessness are linked, he added.
“(Some) people become homeless because they are mentally ill,” he said. “When you’re mentally ill, families often abandon you because they cannot handle you.”
The number of residents increased after the hall management was restructured to meet mental health challenges and other struggles, Joseph said. The hall and staff provide a home and family where students are loved, they learn life skills, contribute to the hall community and receive the help they need with their personal struggles such as mental illness.
The 13-member staff includes a clinical psychologist, behavioral specialist, mentors and house parents.
Of the 19 residents, five are graduates. Three of them are attending MCC, one is receiving vocational training and one is attending Nuvo College of Cosmetology. There are also four academy students who work full time.
Covenant is a year-round school that’s in session 220 days a year. Students attend four-hour sessions, and have their pick of three different time slots.
The school has no set grade levels and uses online learning to help it meet students wherever they are at in their education.
The residence hall is a short walk from the school.
The former Muskegon County Child Haven building, which sheltered abused and neglected children, was donated by Mercy Health Muskegon. An $800,000 renovation was financed by donors, lead by Larry Hines, of Hines Corporation.
Operational funds for the hall come from the Michigan Department of Human Services, which was secured with help from then-state Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart.
Covenant had to jump through bureaucratic and legislative hoops to get the residence hall opened, Joseph said. The hope is that is can serve as a model for other schools, including the other two Covenant Academy locations.
Before the hall opened, the building had been vacant since January 2013. Renovations included a new roof, furnace and plumbing — plus all the details that make a home.
The school will celebrate Covenant Hall’s grand opening July 25.
Each room is equipped with beds, dressers, desks and decorations — although residents can add personal touches such as a giant goat head stuffed animal found on one boy’s neatly-made bed.
Common areas include separate boys’ and girls’ lounges; a shared lounge; a computer room; a gym equipped with an elliptical, treadmill, bicycles, a basketball hoop, and ping pong and pool tables; and a kitchen where dinner is served family-style.
Residents are provided with everything they need — food, clothing, toiletries, laundry service and more — so they can focus on their education, said Mark-Quieasts Cook, Covenant “house parent.” But they also learn life skills — there’s a whole checklist of them — including housekeeping, job seeking, balancing a check book and cooking.
“My motto is, outside that door is the real world, I’m going to get you ready for it,” Cook said.
Inspirational quotes can be found on the walls throughout the hall, including one from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the shared lounge: “If you can’t fly, then run; if you can’t run, then walk; if you can’t walk, then crawl; but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
Another quote reads, “Turn your cants into cans and your dreams into plans.”