By Marianna Moles
It would be hard for anyone to say Michelle Covert doesn’t deserve the 2017 Phenomenal Woman Award, which she recently received from County of Santa Clara Office of Women’s Policy, in partnership with Building Peaceful Families’ Still I Rise Luncheon. Her 25-year career in homeless services shows just how she embodies the award, which celebrates women who have faced challenges and overcome adversities, and who are living a life of resiliency.
“The ceremony felt like a revival party more than anything,” said Michelle. Throughout the ceremony an event host would grab the microphone and chant, “You are phenomenal,” to remind each woman that they do indeed deserve the award, since according to Michelle, half the women said they didn’t deserve it. Michelle demonstrates how phenomenal she is every day when she treats each of her clients as people with individual needs. She is guided by her belief that everyone deserves a safe and stable place to lay their head.
She recently met one of her most memorable former clients for lunch, Julie. Michelle guesstimates Julie is one of 5,000 runaway and homeless youth she’s worked with, who in her eyes, all feel like her own kids. “My mom used to say that ‘my son has two kids and my daughter has hundreds.’ Young adults are so amazing. Every adult in their life has dropped them, so they don’t believe me when I tell them what will help them, but I can push them in the right direction.”
Julie is someone who needed to be pushed. When they met, she was young, pregnant and a runaway. Michelle fondly remembers being in her life when she needed protection, and later as she gave birth to her daughter Hayley, who is now 22 years old. Julie went on to earn her Bachelor’s and now works for a car dealership. She and Michelle formed a lasting bond with each other built on resiliency, among other life changing attributes.
Today, Michelle works for County of Santa Clara Office of Supportive Housing (OSH), where she connects families and individuals to resources to help prevent them from becoming homeless. OSH is one of the leaders implementing the community’s 10-year Community Plan to End Homelessness, transforming the way government responds to homelessness, increasing affordable housing options, and including community input to help implement these strategies.
On a daily basis, OSH coordinates housing and emergency services for homeless people in need. As part of that safety net, Michelle stands on the front lines as an example of a provider embodying the plan’s strategy to serve the person, employing client-centered responses by targeting resources to the specific individual or household. She is a human being that people can connect with during stressful circumstances that require immediate assistance, such as a family staying in unsanitary living conditions, or when a tenant is unexpectedly forced to relocate.
Michelle assesses each case based on the tenant’s needs, what kind of support they’re eligible for and which homeless service provider she should connect them with. “Homelessness needs to be prevented wherever possible. If we get to the point where we can prevent homelessness, wherever we can... Will we get there in my lifetime? I don’t know. But I have to believe it’s realistic. For every good story, there’s five where I couldn’t do what I wanted for someone. We don’t have enough resources,” said Michelle. “The hardest days are where I couldn’t find something for that family. But overall, I don’t feel hopeless.”
Each night Michelle goes home knowing that she poured her heart and soul into her job – that each person she came in contact with received support they needed to help prevent them from ending up on the streets. This alone makes her phenomenal.