November 25, 2014

Sidewalk Sleep-Outs Connect Wealthy With Homeless

Jenna Shoenefeld Photography

The Covenant House Sleep-Out: Executive Edition in Los Angeles raised nearly $200,000.

It might have been the most unlikely sleepover in Los Angeles. Not only did the gathering take place in an open-air parking lot, but any of the three dozen attendees could have afforded a room at the nearby Roosevelt Hotel.

With the noise of the Hollywood Freeway in the not-so-distant background, studio executives, lawyers, a luxury-jeans titan, and this reporter curled up on flattened cardboard boxes for a night spent sleeping—or not—on cold asphalt. Each had forked over at least $5,000 for the privilege.

"People think it is crazy," conceded Paul Hanneman, co-president of worldwide theatrical marketing and distribution at 20th Century Fox, after making up his bed, complete with plastic bags to guard against rain. (The night ultimately stayed dry.)

Crazy or not, the event, known formally as the Covenant House Sleep-Out: Executive Edition, raised nearly $200,000 for Covenant House’s Los Angeles site. It was one of 15 sleep-outs that took place overnight Thursday in cities across the United States and Canada.

Four years since its inception, the sleep-out series has become a marquee event for Covenant House, which shelters 1,900 young people in 27 cities across North America every night, while providing other services. The inaugural sleep-out took place in November 2011 in front of the original Covenant House building at West 41st Street and 10th Avenue in New York, according to Tod Monaghan, vice president for development for Covenant House International. Fifty participants, executive board members, and their friends, raised about $500,000.

Winning Formula

It was clear that peer-to-peer fundraising combined with an immersive experience so closely aligned with the Covenant House mission was a winning formula.

The nonprofit soon expanded to additional cities. Mr. Monaghan and his colleagues have since introduced a moms edition, a young professionals edition, and a Broadway edition. (Yes, show tunes are sung.) Overhead costs are minimal.

The sleep-out on Thursday brought in $5.2-million, according to Covenant House spokesman Tom Manning, adding to the $7-million total previously raised by the series. Covenant House International had annual revenue of $58.7-million in 2012-13, according to its most recent available tax form filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

Expanding Revenue

The success of the nonprofit’s sleep-out supersedes the dollars raised, Mr. Monaghan said. For one, it has helped Covenant House diversify its revenue streams.

"You can’t be dependent on that one gala," Mr. Monaghan said. "You can’t be dependent on that one corporation or foundation to come through for you."

It has also brought a range of professionals to Covenant House's doorstep, he said. Some sleepers, like Brian Cashman, the general manager of the Yankees, and Strauss Zelnick, chief executive of video game giant, Take-Two Interactive Software, are in a position to make major donations while also driving similarly well-positioned friends and colleagues to the cause. Others can’t write the check themselves but have the ability through their peer networks to hit targets. The individual fundraising goals for the moms and young-professionals editions are $2,000 and $1,000, respectively.

"The idea of sleeping on the street, the novelty of that gets the attention of folks that we wouldn’t otherwise have contact with," Mr. Monaghan said. "You don't need to train to sleep outside. You don’t have to have physical ability. [We] can cast a wider net."

The one-year participant retention rate is about 25 percent, he estimated.

Executive Edition

The executive edition, which always takes place the week before Thanksgiving, remains the flagship event, Mr. Monaghan said. Every year, participating business executives offer jobs to young homeless individuals on the spot. Mr. Monaghan pointed to Michael Chernow and Daniel Holzman, founders of a New York chain of eateries called the Meatball Shop, who have hired some 40 Covenant House clients to work in their restaurants.

"It is a night that has meaning," Mr. Monaghan said. "It is a night where people are coming together to let homeless youth know that they are not alone."

The most indelible feature of the sleep-out is meeting with and hearing the stories of Covenant House clients, participants say. In Los Angeles, that included 19-year-old Marcus Alston, who has been living at the shelter for four months.

The worst part about sleeping on the streets is being robbed—he once woke up to find everything gone except the backpack strapped to his back—and the uncomfortable looks from people, Mr. Alston said. He joked with those sleeping outside on Thursday to ready an extra blanket.

"I feel like a lot of people give money to homeless people, but they don’t know what they go through," said Mr. Alston, noting that actually sleeping outside lends meaning to the fundraising effort.

Big Names

In addition to Mr. Hanneman of Fox, the roster of sleepers in Los Angeles included Liza Pano, senior vice president for worldwide distribution services at Paramount Pictures, and Peter Kim, the founder of the high-end denim brand Hudson Jeans, among others.

"The greatest aspect of this for the executives is empathy," said Mr. Kim, who brought four employees with him. "It is a massive shift in perspective."

Ms. Pano, who was sleeping out for the third consecutive year, said she posts photos on social media throughout the evening to keep those who donated money updated. Some are willing to contribute just to see her bundled up on the asphalt, she said.

More than one participant admitted looking forward to a hot shower and a warm bed. But they also pointed out that the temporary discomfort was a far cry from that experienced by those served by Covenant House.

"If I can suck it up for a few hours just to bring awareness to this, then it is worth it," Ms. Pano said.

Send an e-mail to Megan O'Neil.