Covenant House in Newark, New Jersey, is a crisis center that gives homeless teens and young adults food, shelter, crisis care and counseling. It is a place to rebuild their lives. From 2009 to early 2014, I visited the center whenever I was on the east coast. Using the SongwritingWith approach, I collaborated with the ever revolving groups of residents to write songs based on their stories of life on the street.
My goal at Covenant House was to instill a sense of value in the residents, and to help them realize their unique vision of the world, and put it into songs. From the start, I was knocked over by the radiant, open spirit of the residents. Despite longtime neglect and hardship that so many of them had faced — from abuse to drugs to trafficking — the young men and women seeking refuge at the shelter were eager to engage. Using their lives as a basis for new songs, together we turned some of their painful experiences into something beautiful that could be a comfort to them — and possibly to somebody else.
Each session at Covenant House was new — I never knew what I was walking into. I didn’t know who would be there, what the vibe of the shelter would be. And it was always a thrill to see what kinds of songs we wrote.
Working in an environment like Covenant House isn’t always easy. These are street kids who’ve seen more at age 17, at 19, at 20 than most of us will ever see in a lifetime. There were times when I struggled with the trauma that was so evident, and I had to put aside the desire to help them all. I tried to focus on what I was there to do — write their songs, using their words in the stories.
One of the highlights of my work at Covenant House was writing a song with both Crips and Bloods at the same time, in the room. After the session, one of the counselors told me that the young men from these violently opposed street gangs had never even spoken to each other, much less collaborated on piece of music. In many ways, this perfectly illustrates the vision of SongwritingWith — to use the power of collaborative songwriting to transform lives. It is my hope that through our song, we transformed the illusion of difference into a new understanding of community.
If you would like to know more about my work with SongwritingWith at Covenant House, or any other setting, please contact me here.