Nearly 200 people gathered outside of Covenant House in Southeast Washington to hold a candlelight vigil for homeless young people. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Just the night before, Thomas Russo, chief technology officer at real estate firm Akridge, was sitting around the dinner table of his 7-acre Olney home with his wife and two children, talking about their favorite part of the day.

But on this night, there was no dinner table laughter. No house. No family. Instead, he slept on the Southeast D.C. concrete in a sleeping bag atop a piece of cardboard in a 45-degree chill.

“I’m doing this for my kids so they don’t have to,” said Russo in a beanie, pulling tight the polyester sleeping bag and laying his head on a pillow cover that his wife made him for this occasion.

Russo was among about a dozen business and nonprofit executives that gave up the comforts of a warm bed to spend a night outside in Southeast Washington to raise money for homeless youth services.

The group included executives from Monumental Sports & Entertainment, D.C. Central Kitchen, Seneca Wealth Strategies, Gelberg Signs, Fort Lincoln New Town Corp. and the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington.

After a candlelight vigil and a reception outside of homeless youth organization, Covenant House, executives sat in roundtables with young people who recounted life without a home because of parental abuse, foreclosure or family rejection. Then the executives grabbed their sleeping bags and cardboard and arranged their beds outside the Covenant House building to experience a slice of life on the streets.

Passing the night

Under the beaming parking lot lights and interrupted by the sound of police sirens and intermittent roars of the Metro 100 yards away, the sleepers — as Covenant House called them — discussed the possibility of rats in the bushes, while chatting about upcoming galas and their kids’ baseball teams. Some took time to call their spouse and kids to say good night. Others tweeted on their cellphone. Some even attempted to get sleep. Six security guards stood watch in the parking lot all night.

Through the sponsorship of the executives’ family and friends, the group raised nearly $60,000 for Covenant House, which officials say will support programs including emergency shelter, education courses and child care.

The charity said it may have secured a new pool of supporters from the sponsors, 90 percent of which have never given to the organization.

“We just wanted to reach some folks that wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach,” said Daniel Brannen, executive director of Covenant House Washington. “It spreads the word more and gives them an opportunity to experience something that they probably never would have.”

Over the past two years, Covenant House has been organizing sleep-outs with high school and college students. But last year when the nonprofit’s New York location raised $1 million after inviting a group of 50 executives to sleep outside, the organization decided to host the executive sleep-out event in its 15 locations around the country.

Wanting a visceral understanding

It could be a sign that the nation is in the midst of an era where affluent people are becoming disenchanted with writing checks to charities and now want to have a visceral experience of the causes they support.

The Foundation for Fighting Blindness hosts an annual Dining in the Dark gala in D.C. where guests eat a three-course meal in pitch-black darkness. Local business executives have shaved their heads at St. Baldrick’s Foundation events, which support children with cancer.

Some advocates say that creating these experiences for members of the upper class could create significant empathy from the community.

“Getting a group of executives to sleep outdoors is not going to end homelessness,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “But these are people of influence and their opinions matter. And sadly the opinions of homeless people matter less.”

Michelle Freeman, philanthropist and partner in Monumental Sports & Entertainment, learned about the sleep-out this summer from a friend and immediately responded to the challenge. After the sleep-out, she said “every bone hurts in my body from the concrete,” but is looking to bring 10 more friends to next year’s event.

Fred Hill, president of a the Hill Group, a health care consulting firm, said he is looking into providing internships for some of the youth.

Russo of Akridge heard about it from a business mentor and signed up “without really knowing what I was getting into.” As co-chairman of an energy summit next year, he has already decided that Covenant House will be the charity that the conference supports.

“After learning about the number of homeless youth, I really felt like I had been blinded,” Russo said. “Now I want to do as much as I can for these kids.”


Homeless youth in the
District annually.


Youth in D.C. are homeless on
any given night.


Beds available for D.C. youth among all the youth shelters, according to Covenant House and D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates.