Covenant House pioneers look back and to future

A front page photo in the March 1, 1972 Jewish Light, accompanying a story about Covenant House’s groundbreaking. 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Shortly after Covenant House opened, Harvey Gerstein was surprised when a new resident came up and told him bluntly that he had saved her life.

“She said, ‘I wanted to die because I had nothing to do and no one to be with,’ ” Gerstein recalled . “ ‘I’m here, I have a lot of friends, I feel like I’ve come back to life.’ ”

Gerstein’s story was one of many shared late last month when he and his wife, Wilma, hosted a gathering to celebrate Covenant’s four decades in business. Now known as Covenant Place, the apartment complex for seniors is embarking on a new era in its history, a multiphase, $84 million plan to replace all three of its buildings with 355 units in a trio of new buildings.

Tax credits will offset a significant share of the cost, but Covenant still looks to raise more than $26 million for the project overall—$4.4 million of that total for the construction of the first building.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Covenant plans an aging-in-place concept for the complex, which will include a senior lifestyle center offering an array of services, from craft and activity rooms and meeting spaces to a barber and beauty shop. Office space will house various resource providers, such as social workers and legal aid professionals. 

“The idea is to bring together all of the resources, including food, programmatic activities, technology, lifelong learning, and bring this all into a space where people can find it and also find each other,” said Joan Denison, Covenant’s executive director. 

Covenant’s facility also is showing its age. Denison told the group that problems include worn roofs, wiring issues and leaky pipes. 

“Just today in my office there was a flood,” she said.

Denison initially felt a rehab might work but that proved unrealistic.

“I said, ‘Let’s try to get ahead of it and make a plan for repair and replacement,’ ” she said. “When we really talked to the architects and engineers who came out to look at the property, they just said, ‘You know, you are just not going to get there from here, and the cost is going to be so close to what it would cost to just build, you’d be crazy to do it.’ ”

Construction also will allow Covenant to do away with a number of efficiency units that generally remain empty. 

Many of the dozen-and-a-half people gathered at the Gersteins’ to share memories were well-versed in the subject of putting up new structures, having been involved in Covenant House when it was built.

Past-president Bonnie Solomon of Chesterfield started working at Covenant as a part-time staffer.

“There were 200 apartments, and we had a thousand applications the first day that I came to work,” she recalled.

A fellow named Sam House got the first unit. Solomon remembered that the Jewish Light’s headline was “Mr. House finds a home.”

“I think it just underscores l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation,” she said. “None of us can foresee what the future is going to bring, but we have an obligation to at least plant the seeds.”

Oscar Goldberg of Olivette wasn’t in on the original project but was president of the organization a decade ago. He feels the cost of building new is worth it, especially because Covenant will be able to install new sprinkler systems, better roofing and air-conditioning in corridors.

Harvey Hieken has been an important force in raising money for the new project, in addition being a donor. He said that because of recent economic turmoil, people may be retiring earlier.

“They can’t afford to do what they used to do, so they go into Covenant House,” he said. “Conversely, they are living longer because of the advancement in medicine, so they are coming in earlier and staying longer, so we really need these facilities.”

Denison praised the attendees who had put in so much work to build and maintain Covenant.

“I just can’t tell you how visionary each of you were to know that there was this need and to do the work that you did to address it and build Covenant House,” she said. “Working over the past two and a half years on the development of the new buildings, I am so aware of how much you did and how much work it was.”

Denison said that work has had an impact.

“The mitzvah that you did over 40 years ago now has been multiplied by the thousands of people who have benefitted and really still benefit today, every day, from having this wonderful place to live,” she said.

Gerstein said he still thinks of the woman who told him he saved her life.

“How can you not stay involved with something like Covenant when things like that happen?” he asked.