As the clock struck noon on Friday, a group of 10 women and men sat down to a white tablecloth meal at Dilworth Park.
“Would you care for a glass of pinot noir?” one of two servers asked a man in a blue bow tie at the head of the table.
The man nodded, and the woman poured a glass of nothing from an empty wine bottle.
“Dinner will be served shortly,” the server announced to the table of chatty guests, all of whom were awaiting an “Invisible Lunch.”
The 45-minute luncheon — consisting of three courses of “nothing” in an effort to raise awareness of the meals often missed by homeless kids — was an initiative of Covenant House Pennsylvania, the largest emergency shelter for youth in Philadelphia.
“Today, we’re offering rack of lamb, and curry cauliflower for the vegetarians,” said Jen Jaynes, a Philadelphia actor playing chef for the day. Jaynes was among nearly a dozen actors helping out.
One in 10 young adults ages 18 to 25 in the U.S. has experienced homelessness, according to a study published in January in the Journal of Adolescent Health. In Philadelphia, nearly 600 homeless and unaccompanied young people ages 13 to 25 were counted on a single night in August 2016, according to a report the city released last year.
“These are individuals that are running away from abuse, aging out of foster programs with no job, being pushed away from their family for identifying as LGBT,” said Covenant House executive director John Ducoff. “We can’t just look away and have them become the next generation of adult homelessness.”
Covenant House serves up to 700 runaway, homeless, and trafficked youth ages 24 and under each year. The organization houses a 76-bed crisis center in Germantown, as well as a 20-bed transitional living program in Kensington.
“Homeless young people are an invisible population,” Ducoff said. “Adolescents care deeply about how they’re perceived, and so they are often embarrassed of their struggles and try to hide it. You could be sitting next to a young man on the subway and have no idea that they’re going to go without dinner that night.”
In conjunction with the public lunch, Covenant House promoted its Pledge a Plate campaign Friday, passing out paper plates reading, “I pledged a plate, will you?’ to those walking by City Hall.
The campaign encourages people to forgo lunch for a day and donate the money to Covenant House to be put toward a meal for someone in need.
“Skipping a meal provides some insight into what it’s like,” said Ducoff. “You could also pack a lunch instead of eating out — we ask people to do whatever they feel comfortable with and to donate what they can.”
Ducoff pointed out that for homeless youth, summer is one of the worst times of struggle.
“It should be a joyous season, but for this population, when school lets out, it often means a season of going hungry,” he said.
Alexis Whitt, who handed out plates Friday, knows all too well what it feels like to live in fear of not having enough food.
Whitt came to the Covenant House in 2014 at 19. At the time, she was working part-time as a waitress at Friendly’s while making her way through cosmetology school and sleeping on friends’ couches.
“I primarily needed a roof over my head, and they provided the safe space that I needed,” said Whitt, now going into her senior year at Rosemont College, majoring in criminal justice. “I wouldn’t be going in the direction that I am without them. I wouldn’t be in college and would still be struggling, probably on the streets.”
Whitt is staying at Covenant House’s Kensington site for the summer until she goes back to college to live on campus in the fall.
“I plan on pursuing my master’s after that in social work,” said Whitt. “I want to be able to give back to people like me and help prevent people from ending up in homeless situations.”
Since its founding in 1999, Covenant House estimates it has served nearly 40,000 youth.
“We become the family that these individuals often need to lift them up and support them in their dreams,” said Ducoff. “The most beautiful thing about the kids is their resilience, their courage, and the optimism they hold after overcoming more tragedy than most of us will ever experience in our entire lives.”
To donate to the Pledge a Plate campaign, go to covenanthousepa.org. Starting suggested donations begin at $3.12, the estimated cost of one meal.