Changing Lives Overnight
- REALTOR® Debbie McCabe has rallied a team in Philadelphia for the past nine years to sleep outside in the winter to raise awareness and funds to help homeless youth.
- Covenant House Pennsylvania, the group she supports, operates a 76-bed facility that shelters homeless young people aged 16 to 22.
- Last year, it provided services to 726 clients, ranging from transitional and permanent housing to health care and life skills training.
Imagine it’s a cold November night, and you have no place to go. Your best bet for shelter and a place to sleep is a cardboard box in an alley that you hope will keep out the biting wind. For too many kids in the U.S., this scenario is all too real.
REALTOR® Debbie McCabe, an associate broker and regional vice president with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach Wayne-Devon in Devon, Pa., knows a bit what it’s like, too. One night each year in the fall, she participates in the Sleep Out, an annual event sponsored by Covenant House Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, a nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless youth overcome a multitude of challenges.
Participants are given a cardboard box and a sleeping bag and sleep out on the street overnight, to raise money for CHPA and to show their solidarity with these young people and what they are experiencing. McCabe has participated in the event for the last nine years. “We do it in all kinds of weather,” McCabe says. “One year we were blessed, and it was 50 degrees that night. Another year we had snow, ice and rain.”
A Safe Haven for Homeless Youth
McCabe began her work with CHPA in 2012 and swiftly earned a spot on the board of directors. The charity provides services to young people aged 16 to 22 who are facing homelessness or are survivors of human trafficking. Programs include street outreach, a drop-in center, a short-term youth shelter, longer-term transitional housing and permanent housing. Among the critical services the facility provides are meals, health care, legal services, mental health services and life-skills training.
In 2021, CHPA programs and services assisted 726 young people, many of whom face mental health challenges or are survivors of domestic abuse, and provided 20,050 nights of housing for youth who have nowhere else to turn. Staff and volunteers worked hard to keep CHPA open during the worst of the pandemic. “This population is some of the most vulnerable. Often, they are at a critical juncture when they get to Covenant House,” says CHPA Executive Director Jen Weikert. “We can open up opportunity, and we can help them find stability.”
CHPA has a staff of about 60 and a $6 million annual budget. A full third of the budget comes from fundraising, relying on the efforts of dedicated people like McCabe. “Debbie has been a cheerleader, ambassador and advocate who tells people about Covenant House everywhere she goes,” says Weikert. “We’re looking for $600,000 from the Sleep Out this year, and Debbie McCabe will be instrumental in helping us reach that goal.”
A Life of Service
Looking back, McCabe’s path to helping homeless youth now seems almost predestined. Her first contact with homelessness came when she began working in Philadelphia for a college internship, and she was moved by the plight of the homeless people she saw on her trips into the city. At the time, McCabe wanted to help but wasn’t sure where to begin. She knew that handing money to someone on the street might help a bit in the moment but wouldn’t get them housing and wouldn’t make a dent in the larger problem.
The second pivotal event occurred a year later when she moved to London and saw that large-scale urban homelessness wasn’t inevitable. “There were a lot fewer people living on the streets, even in a big city like London,” says McCabe.
After four years in London, McCabe returned to the U.S. and embarked on her real estate career. At the same time, she was raising her growing family, and juggling real estate and young children left her little extra time to pursue all the charitable activities she was interested in.
But the desire to help remained.
When a good friend asked her to volunteer at CHPA in 2012, McCabe knew that this would become a passion project for her. “The ages of these kids were directly parallel to my children at the time,” says the mother of five. “That was the clincher.”
Service to the community was a value McCabe was raised with. “That’s just what you do. It’s not if you help, but who,” she says.
The “who” for McCabe and CHPA are young people like Molly Bates. Bates was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend—and her mother blamed her and kicked her out of the house. With her father in jail, Bates had nowhere to go but the streets. She eventually found her way to CHPA, where she was given a safe place to sleep, meals and life-skills training.
Molly then moved into CHPA transitional housing, where she stayed until she was 21. Molly is now a mother of three, a published author, an entrepreneur and a successful public speaker. “When I arrived, I could feel the love,” Bates says. “That is what drew me in, and that is what made me stay. I could feel right away that it was a place of order, and that is what I needed the most.”
More Than Just a Brand
McCabe’s dedication to young people like Bates has led her to be a tireless fundraiser for CHPA, and her fellow REALTORS® are a key part of her success. Each year, McCabe reaches out to her sphere and pulls in thousands of dollars in donations. In 2021 alone, McCabe raised $56,738 for the Sleep Out. Over her 10 years of involvement with CHPA, she’s raised $315,596.
Every year she recruits a team of 10 to 15—mostly REALTORS®, along with an occasional grown child or spouse—to sleep outside in the cold alongside her. While many teams that participate in the Sleep Out use company branding for their team name, McCabe has chosen not to do so: “I never use a brokerage name. We get people from many different brokerages, but I made a conscious decision to make this a REALTOR® group for all.”
In addition, McCabe has used her professional skills to help CHPA with a recent real estate transaction, as the nonprofit received a piece of land from a donor and wanted to sell it. McCabe stepped in to iron out some local tax issues that cropped up. The sale ended up raising $50,000 that will go directly into CHPA’s budget.
Whether helping out with a financial transaction or sleeping out in the cold to raise other needed funds, it’s all part of what drives her to make a difference. As a REALTOR®, anything she can do to support people without housing feels only natural.
“This is what we do,” says McCabe. “We have the joy of bringing people into homeownership. These kids are on the bottom. We can change that trajectory. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had that chance?”