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Thursday, 23 May 2019 12:46

‘The Need is There’: West Michigan steps up to combat LGBTQ youth homelessness, but advocates say there’s more work to be done.

Written by  Andy Balaskovitz
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It’s 9 a.m. on a recent Wednesday in May, and Grand Rapids HQ near downtown is quiet. The carpeted open floor plan resembles a preschool but with amenities for adults. Computer and TV screens are blank, bathroom lights are off, the kitchen is clean, and there’s no hum of laundry machines. 

The scene is much different on afternoons throughout the week when up to dozens of young homeless visitors filter in, officials say.

HQ is West Michigan’s first and only drop-in center for runaway and homeless youths. They come in need of a hot meal, internet access or just to catch a few programs on Netflix. The center — on State Street SE in the Heritage Hill Neighborhood — is a place for youths and young adults between the ages of 14 and 24 to go for a few hours while they’re not in shelters, surfing couches or otherwise facing the uncertainty of a roof over their head.

HQ opened in December 2014 and has seen demand steadily increase to about 200  visits per week.

Drop-in times for people ages 14-19 and 20-24 are on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, while Wednesdays and Fridays are available by appointment.

Founded with seed money from Mars Hill Bible Church, Grand Rapids HQ is also an intentionally welcoming environment for those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ). Advocates often cite HQ as a critical facility for LGBTQ youths struggling with homelessness who are most often rejected from stable housing because of how they identify.

“We have seen 1,200 youths in four years. When they come here and how they’re treated requires intentional advocacy and relationship building,” said Shandra Steininger, executive director and co-founder of HQ. “That hope has to be reinstituted. We need to change how we help young people.”

LGBTQ youth are far more likely to encounter homelessness than their straight and cisgender peers, studies have shown. Local groups say this is largely caused by parents or guardians who reject their child’s identity. As Pride Month 2019 begins, a broad coalition of faith-based, advocacy, community and nonprofit groups are active in addressing the problem. This includes identifying the extent of the need and also offering shelter and resources.

“Welcoming,” “inclusive” and “intentional” are not just boilerplate language in mission statements, but rather an active practice for LGBTQ advocacy groups in West Michigan. Even so, generating funding for serving the LGBTQ population in a historically conservative and faith-based community comes with obvious challenges. Most of all, these centers want young LGBTQ residents to know they’re safe in these spaces to identify how they choose.

“The biggest hurdle for us was getting the LGBTQ community wanting to access the shelter space to not be concerned,” said Adrienne Goodstal, vice president of programs for Mel Trotter Ministries, a Grand Rapids faith-based group whose mission is to provide food and housing for the homeless. 

Over the past three years, Mel Trotter has opened a shelter welcoming for young men ages 18-24 who identify as LGBTQ, as well as the state’s first transgender shelter.

“We demonstrate the compassion of Jesus Christ through rescue and restoration for anyone experiencing hunger and homelessness. It isn’t about a specific belief system, it’s our mission,” Goodstal added. “We certainly knew going into it there could be a loss of funders. We may have lost some funders, but we’ve also gained some.”

Filling a need

Nationally, 4.2 million youths experience homelessness per year, and around 40 percent identify as LGBTQ. However, a 2017 study from the University of Chicago showed LGBTQ youth are 120 percent more likely to become homeless than their straight and cisgender peers (about 7 percent of youth identify as LGBT). 

Advocates say it’s difficult to quantify the number of homeless LGBTQ youth in Grand Rapids and West Michigan. Between shelters and drop-in centers, local advocates see roughly a couple hundred individuals in a year. But this doesn’t account for those who avoid disclosing their identity out of fear.

Grand Rapids Pride Center administrator Larry DeShane says this fear is driving youths and young adults to stay in the closet.

“The most common story we hear about is youth who are afraid to come out for fear they will be kicked out,” said DeShane, who helps oversee youth programs and meetings at the Pride Center. “Kids in our programs are hearing things their parents are saying or their church is saying and their fear is, if they come out fully, then they’ll be one of those statistics.”

The services available for homeless youth in the Grand Rapids area are interdependent and act as a network, depending on what services they provide.

Mel Trotter and The Bridge of Arbor Circle — a non-faith-based nonprofit in Grand Rapids — offer shelter to youths identifying as LGBTQ. Mel Trotter’s nine-bed shelter is for males ages 18-24, while The Bridge is for ages 10-17. The Bridge houses around 250 youths a year, while Mel Trotter’s male youth program served around 150 last year.

Mel Trotter also has the first shelter space in Michigan designated for transgender individuals, which opened in 2017. Eight beds are provided on a first-come, first-served basis. So far, the transgender shelter, known as the R&R Space, has helped 27 people from across the state totaling more than 1,000 bed nights. Seven of those have found permanent housing.

“Certainly the need is there,” Goodstal said.

Last year, Covenant House Michigan opened a 28-bed shelter in Grand Rapids that emphasizes education and job training to help young adults ages 18-24 get back on their feet.

The Grand Rapids Pride Center also fields calls from people in emergency situations, including in outlying rural areas like Muskegon and Allegan counties. Typically they will direct youths age 10-17 to Arbor Circle. For young adults kicked out of the house, especially between ages 18-20, “that gets really difficult for us,” DeShane said.

Mel Trotter is basically the only option at that point. If their youth program beds are full, DeShane said he’s unlikely to refer young adults and those over 24 to their men’s shelter if it’s not an emergency.

“It’s not so much Mel Trotter as it is the population. Those are people who are in survival mode,” DeShane said, which likely creates an uncomfortable situation for those unaccustomed to homelessness. “There are some resources out there, but I still don’t feel super confident when I get a 19-year-old kid who finds themselves on the street with no place to go. There’s no great place for them.”

A path forward

The Bridge dates back to the 1940s as a shelter for runaway and homeless minors, eventually merging under Arbor Circle by the mid 1990s. The shelter is a component of Arbor Circle’s broader youth development program, which serves about 550 kids a year and includes staff who identify young people on the street and connect them with resources. A 2018 study found 3,471 children ages 0-17 were homeless in Kent County, nearly three-quarters of whom are black or African American.

In recent years, Arbor Circle officials recognized that roughly 40 percent of runaway youths nationally identify as LGBTQ.

“We found that really interesting,” said Julie Cnossen, Arbor Circle’s program manager for youth development services. “We compared that with our data, and we were dramatically different — much lower.”

Either West Michigan had an unusually low number of LGBTQ young people in the community, or “people aren’t coming to us and aren’t being open about their identity and are concerned.”

Arbor Circle assumed the latter. It started reaching out to groups like the Grand Rapids Pride Center and HQ about how services could be improved and how the organization could be more intentional about addressing the problem. Now Arbor Circle’s programs include 26 percent who identify as LGBTQ.

“Family conflict is the No. 1 reason” they seek services, Cnossen said. “Either they’re not safe to stay at their home or they have been pushed out or abused in a home environment for who they authentically are.”

Eventually, members of the business community, local philanthropists and others grew interested, Cnossen said, leading to a year-long planning process that started in 2017. The project was funded by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation’s Our LGBT Fund and the True Colors Fund, and included dozens of participating members. (In 2017, GRCF also provided $5,000 to start an LGBTQ center in Holland and $20,000 for Well House to open a home for homeless LGBTQ youth.)

That planning process, convened by Arbor Circle, led to a report and a set of recommendations in 2018 specifically to address LGBTQ homelessness. These include funding needs and timelines for housing, schools, the faith community and equity and inclusion training.

The next stage is research and a “new team dynamic focused on implementation and measurable change,” Cnossen said.

“Our hope and intention is that at some point we get to where all young people are welcome and accepted and no young person has to experience homelessness,” she said.

Squaring with faith

For the past two years, the Hudsonville Congregational United Church of Christ has been open to and affirming of the LGBTQ community. The position came after an 18-month church-wide discussion and vote on whether to do so following the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing same-sex marriage.

Within the first few months, the church displayed a pride flag outside publicly indicating its new position. It lasted about six weeks and was torn down a couple of times, said the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dan Furman.

Instead, Hudsonville UCC placed a pride flag decal on its roadside signage as a permanent fixture. The church’s website prominently features the colors of the rainbow and the statement: “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” Furman said the incident led to an outpouring of support in the community.

“They couldn’t believe there was a supportive church in Hudsonville and were excited to know that,” he said.

The church had a booth at Holland Pride last year, and plans to again this year. It participates in Hudsonville High School’s gay-straight alliance and hosts activities. Hudsonville UCC also is incorporating the nondenominational Ottawa Area Center for Pride nonprofit, modeled off the Grand Rapids Pride Center.

Furman said all of these efforts are about providing a safe space in central Ottawa County for LGBTQ youth and adults effectively caught between Holland and Grand Rapids.

“Unfortunately, so many youth have been exiled from the church or condemned, which is just disgusting to me,” Furman said. He has interacted with youths who can’t tell their parents about their sexual orientation, and hopes the church may one day be able to provide a drop-in center.

While advocates report a growing acceptance to the LGBTQ community in West Michigan and elsewhere, the conservative and religious area still creates fear among youth who identify as LGBTQ. A lack of acceptance is a major reason why LGBTQ youths remain closeted or find themselves homeless.

During Arbor Circle’s community survey — which included input from more than 100 youths and their families — Cnossen reports sustained fears from parents with concerns about their children coming out.

“Faith was cited as a huge barrier to a healthy coming out process to both that youth and parent,” Cnossen said.

Goodstal added: “As a conservative and certainly religious community, we are turning the corner and doing some work around this issue. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

In May, Hudsonville UCC hosted a panel for the two-year anniversary of its being open and affirming. The panel featured two transgender adult women, one gay woman and another woman who identified as queer.

“What I took away was one question they were asked: ‘Do you feel safe in Hudsonville?’ All four said, ‘no,’” Furman said. “I think that’s a message people in West Michigan need to hear. It saddens me that churches in West Michigan continue to exclude. That’s not what I read in the gospels and not in the Jesus I see. I long for the day when we won’t have to do this.”

Funding the solution

The community survey has been valuable in identifying youth homelessness needs in West Michigan. The next step is sustaining funding to support the programs. However, relying on grant funding can leave groups like Arbor Circle in a precarious situation.

“The last thing you want is to promise things to youth and young adults and then funders pull back,” Cnossen said. “It’s not uncommon for funders to change areas of impact or focus.”

Steininger of Grand Rapids HQ said more direct funding from local government could provide reliability. Some municipalities have dedicated millages to support youth homelessness. Kalamazoo County voters, for example, passed a millage in 2015 that provides roughly $800,000 a year for six years for a Local Assistance Housing Fund.

In May 2018, leaders from local housing groups including HQ and Mel Trotter penned an open letter to KConnect — which coordinates community programs in Kent County — describing the area’s “homelessness crisis” and lack of a “comprehensive community-wide plan” to address the needs of special populations, including the LGBTQ community.

“Our community is at a tipping point,” according to the letter. “Our agencies, funders and community members can no longer be content with the unacceptable outcomes we have, resulting in the racialized disparities in housing and increased trauma to children.”

Cnossen said based on the community survey, some potential funders are in a “watchful waiting mode” to see whether tangible projects materialize.

“I don’t want to pre-judge that,” she said.

The Grand Rapids Community Foundation’s Our LGBT Fund has also provided grants for Out on the Lakeshore to do outreach in Ottawa County, including working with Holland Public Schools on a needs assessment for students and families, Cnossen said.

The Arbor Circle report recommended schools do these types of education trainings and surveys to understand the competency required for students and teachers, Cnossen added. However, some districts in the area have pushed back, similar to disputes over the type of sex education taught in schools.

“A lot of those got stalled out because superintendents and school boards were uncomfortable asking questions of that sort,” Cnossen said.

Ultimately, solutions in this years-long process will need to include more facilities or rental or leasing assistance.

“For young people experiencing homelessness, the solution to that is housing,” Cnossen said.

DeShane of the Pride Center said the existing shelters in Grand Rapids aren’t funded well enough as it is.

“We need to have specific housing and specific programs targeting (LGBTQ) youths,” he said, given they are more likely to be driven to homelessness. Federal surveys also have shown youth who identify as LGBTQ are more likely to be victims of sexual assault and engage in risky behavior. 

“All of these things put you in a more precarious spot when you are then homeless,” DeShane said.

Cnossen added that it will be “real interesting” to see where the process leads, and whether funding materializes. The uncertainty around grant funding and whether groups get on board appears to be a struggle, for now.

“It feels like a bit of an ongoing sales pitch about making people understand why this issue matters,” Cnossen said. “We’re talking about a sector of the population who is incredibly gifted and talented not starting out on a level playing field. LGBTQ people are getting left behind because of who they authentically are. When we communicate that West Michigan is not a safe environment for them, we lose the diversity we need in the community to thrive.” n

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