Ellen Allen describes leading Covenant House as “the privilege of a lifetime.”
“I’ve been deeply, deeply moved and changed,” Allen said of her time at the Charleston shelter. “I mean, my heart, my mind has been changed by what I’ve experienced here.”
Allen will leave her post in February after 10 years at the nonprofit agency to become executive director of Mountain State Spotlight, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.
“As I turned 60,” Allen said, “this opportunity presented itself. I feel like I’ve started a whole new career and I feel like I’m 25.”
Allen spent most of her life in Princeton before moving to Lewisburg in 2007 and Charleston in 2010. She ran a domestic violence program in Lewisburg and was the director of the YWCA Charleston’s Resolve Family Abuse Program.
“[I] fell in love and that brought me to Charleston,” Allen said. “At the same time that was happening, the YWCA Resolve program had an opening for [a] director, and I like the work. It brought me into nonprofit work, which is something I’d wanted to do for some time.”
In her second year there, the job opened at Covenant House.
Allen said she admired the way Covenant House advocated for same-sex marriage, healthcare access and food security and other issues.
“They took on really edgy and tough issues, and still do,” she said. “We like to say that’s part of our DNA. For 40 years, Covenant House has done that with great community engagement from across the spectrum through the faith community. And that doesn’t always happen.”
Allen said she was struck by the visibility of Charleston’s homeless population compared to her hometown.
“People experiencing homelessness were invisible in Lewisburg. They were invisible in Princeton,” she said. “So you assume we don’t have any. Well, here, obviously it’s changed a lot in the last five years, but let’s go back to when I came here. There were quite a few.”
She said she was surprised by the “support and care of the community that surrounded them,” she said. “I don’t think you see that everywhere. And that still holds true today.”
The drug epidemic’s impact has been felt at Covenant House, she said.
Five years ago, a third of people seeking help through the agency’s AIDS program suffered from a combination of substance abuse and mental health problems. Now, nearly all do, she said. That has made it more challenging to find people homes and keep them there, she said.
Case management staffers feel the effects, Allen said. Some younger staffers have trouble sleeping until they get used to the work.
“I do see our case managers absorbing that because they care about them,” Allen said. “They see the impact of good decisions, bad decisions. Sometimes [people] lack the capacity to make decisions they know that could really turn their life around. It’s not always easy to get someone to accept housing, and sometimes getting them into housing is the easiest part [compared to] helping them stay there and giving them the right support.
“It’s not unusual to see them back on the streets,” Allen said. “I know people don’t like to hear that, but it’s the true story.”
Allen said the agency has been fortunate to keep housing staff members, despite the difficult work.
“That’s why we have tried to have such a great pay scale and good working conditions, other than it being the right thing to do,” Allen said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Allen said, the agency provided services to people it had never served. More people sought help paying their utilities and more used the food bank, which moved from First Presbyterian Church to Covenant House.
“I think one reason is that because people could come here now and shop the pantry — we’ve got it set up like a small grocery store,” she said. “We don’t pick the food, they pick it. So it makes a nice kind of experience. We’re seeing more families because I think they feel more comfortable coming here.”
In the past few years, Covenant House has partnered with West Virginia Health Right to offer health care to clients, a project Allen said she’d wanted to take on since she started.
“I just couldn’t get anybody to pull the trigger on it,” she said. “I knew we had 175 to 200 people a day come in here, people who aren’t going to look at their Day-Timer or their phone and schedule appointment for dental work...or just basic health care.”
Health Right CEO Angie Settle said the partnership started with Health Right conducting HIV and hepatitis testing at Covenant House.
The clinic expanded from a few to 40 hours a week.
“The testing we did during COVID was fantastic because it kept people from going into shelters and taking COVID,” Allen said. “Well, it didn’t keep it [out], but it prevented a lot of it. This became a testing site.”
The clinic is staffed by four people, a nurse practitioner, two medical assistants and a substance abuse disorder counselor. It offers services ranging from routine health care to harm reduction and access to medically assisted treatment. The clinic serves 20 to 25 people a day, Settle said.
“This [clinic] will be here, I want to say, forever. It’ll be here long term,” Allen said. “There’s a major commitment by Health Right and by Covenant House and the board of directors because it has such a positive impact in our community.”
Settle said she’ll miss having Allen as a colleague but knows Covenant House will carry on its mission.
“We share a lot of the same passions about helping the underserved,” Settle said of Allen. “I’ve learned a lot from her. She’s a great mentor. I have a lot of respect for the work she does.
“There’s a lot of people that you’re not sure if they’re genuine in life, and she is who she says she is 24/7, 365,” Settle said. “She stands for something and she’s passionate about it. She’s not going to waver to pressure ...”
The Rev. Patterson Lyles, president of Covenant House’s board, called Allen a “powerful force for good and growth and progress at Covenant House.”
He said she’ll leave the agency in a strong position financially and with good partnerships with community agencies doing similar work. Covenant reported more than $1.5 million in revenues and more than $3.2 million in assets in its latest tax records.
A board committee will lead the search for a new director.
“Thanks to the great staff development that Ellen has done over the years, we’re in no rush,” Lyles said. “Even though she will be leaving the first week of February, realistically we don’t anticipate having someone. We could, but that’s not a deadline for us.
“Things will carry on under the rest of the staff with no glitch, no hitch in the step in between,” he said. “We want to take our time and do a good job and make sure to find the right person.”
Allen said she hopes her successor embraces the “magic” of Covenant House.
“There’s this great history,” she said, “and everybody that’s come along has made it a little bit better.”