Dorms for high school students: Muskegon school responding to students' needs

Covenant Hall Muskegon.
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For teens and young adults, homelessness often means sleeping on the couch at one temporary housing location then moving to another.

That unstable living arrangement is often referred to as "couch surfing."

It can result in students missing or skipping school. Eventually, some students find it's easier to just stop going to school.

It's why Muskegon Covenant Academy High School now offers a place for students to call home. The need can be for a few short weeks, up to years.

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Either way, Muskegon Covenant Academy's newly open Covenant Hall can house up to 32 students.

"I will go out into the street and find them and bring them back," said Mia Clark, Muskegon Covenant Academy Retention Manager.

Clark says homelessness among her students is something that occurs too frequently and family turmoil is one factor that recently resulted in a Covenant Academy student not having a place to sleep at night.

"She had no one and was sleeping from couch to couch and literally in a car," Clark said.

Now, Clark can refer students in need of stable housing to Covenant Hall. It's just two blocks away from the school.

It's another tool Clark says students can use in an effort to graduate from high school.

"Education is the only way out of poverty," Clark said.

The hall made a difference in the life of Thomas Stegall. He was one of the first Muskegon Covenant Academy students to move into Covenant Hall.

Stegall did so after some trouble with the law and running out of other housing options.

"I'm trying to put my past behind me," Stegall said.

In December, Stegall received a high school diploma. He's still living at Covenant Hall. It's something the school allows graduates to do as long as they're enrolled at Muskegon Community College or Baker College.

"The residents who can stay here are 18 to 22, or 17 if they have been emancipated," said Jon Felske, CEO of the Covenant Academy Foundation. "It's a wonderful thing to have in our community."

The building that houses Covenant Hall once belonged to Mercy Health Muskegon. The hospital donated the building which was home to Muskegon County Child Haven, a short-term shelter for children who were removed from a family due to abuse or neglect.

Felske says a number of Muskegon-area business leaders raised or donated the $700,000 to pay for significant renovation on the building. Others in the community sponsored rooms and prepared them for students.

A house parent is on-site 24-hours a day, 365-days a year.

Students like Stegall have daily and weekly chores like dusting, vacuuming, preparing meals and doing their own laundry.

"So that our residents are prepared for self-sustainability when they get their first apartment," Felske said.

Ardasha Gordon is a senior at Covenant Academy and Covenant Hall resident. She moved into the hall after her housing situation dissolved last summer.

"And then I ended up homeless," Gordon said. "It's horrible, you do not know where you are going to go, and it's stressful."

The stress caused her to consider dropping out of school for good. But she didn't. And having a place to call home is a big reason why she expects to graduate from high school in March.

"I only need three credits to be finished," Gordon said.

Mia Clark hopes she never has to refer students to Covenant Hall, but she knows the issue of homelessness will likely enter the lives of students at her school again. Now she's thankful for the long or short-term housing option just around the corner.

"In order for them to be successful at life they need support, and they need to know that they have someone who loves them and cares for them," Clark said. "At Covenant Hall they get that."

Covenant Hall's operation costs are paid for with a grant from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The pilot program is funded for three years.

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