By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
HIGHLAND PARK – Seventy-seven Victor Street has been a theatre, a dance studio and a warehouse. Now it is home for the young people of Ruth Ellis Center, which serves LGBTQ youth who have no other place to call their own.
On April 7, the Center showed off their new location, a 10,000 square foot building, to the larger community during an open house that featured tours, refreshments, a chance to meet some of the young people – and, of course, dancing.
Des’Juan, 17, said “This is a home for me.” Des’Juan said he has been coming to the Center for “at least two years.”
“They cook dinner for us, we eat, we play cards, we play war games – we bought some movies, listen to music,” he said. “We just have a great time, it’s like another family.”
Asked about the new building, Des’Juan said, “I love it. It’s the best.”
REC board and staff members agreed.
“I love the new building. I think to take a center that had only 3,000 square feet and to turn it into one that has 10,000 square feet just means more children are allowed to come in from outside in the community and get the services they need,” said Bridie Johnson, secretary of the board.
Administrative Assistant Robert Thomas said, “I think that it’s wonderful. I think that it’s a wonderful opportunity for our youth, something that they can definitely spread out in.”
REC Executive Director Grace McClelland said that response from the wider community has been positive as well.
“People have really been proud of us that we’re expanding the drop-in center so we can help more kids and provide some new and different services for them,” she said. “It’s been positive feedback all the way around.”
Other young people at the open house agreed that the center is a home for them.
“It’s just like being at home,” said Robin, who has been dropping by for about a month and a half. And Steven, who said he had been coming for two weeks, said, “Where I live at there’s not a lot of places where you can really talk to each other.”
Though staff and volunteers are just beginning to furnish the building, it was easy to see just how “at home” the roughly 15 young people who attended the open house felt as they danced, chatted and enjoyed each other’s company. Smiles, hugs, and high spirits were the order of the evening – and, unlike in the wider community, the young people were free to dance, hold hands with or hug whom they wished, without having to worry about who might be watching.
In addition to receiving help at the center, many of the young people who come there reach out to help the wider community as well, said Hank Millbourne, associate executive director of AIDS Partnership Michigan.
“We’ve had youth who have come from here who have been volunteers at APM, so we’ve had a nice kind of like cross pollination, I guess you might say, of youth who’ve worked in both our programs. I enjoy the relationship,” he said. According to Millbourne, APM does HIV/AIDS testing as well as running prevention and intervention services at the center.
Of course, now that the building has been purchased, it’s time to raise money for renovations and to expand programming, said McClelland.
“What we need right now is we’re putting $100,000 into the renovation upstairs for the street outreach program,” she said. “That’s just the construction costs, and of course we need all the recreation equipment, tables, office furniture – so we’re pretty busy raising dollars for our young people.”
To that end, REC is searching for a new development director.
“We’re advertising for that now, and we’re looking for someone who can really boost our revenue,” to allow REC to meet the ever-expanding needs of the Detroit area’s homeless LGBTQ youth, McClelland said.
Those needs are definitely expanding.
“We’ve increased the number of kids that come to the center every six months by 50 percent over the last two and a half years, to the point where in the last six month reporting period we had 7,985 contacts with kids in our small drop-in center,” McClelland said. Those kids were served in the 900 square foot space that housed the old drop-in center; the new building will allow REC to dedicate 5,000 square feet to feeding, providing programs for, and giving temporary shelter to homeless youth.
Not only are the needs expanding – they are critical, said McClelland.
“[The Ruth Ellis Center] matters because we’re saving kids’ lives,” she said. “That sounds a little conceited, but that’s what the kids tell us. Without REC they would have no place to go, no adults taking care for them to turn to. It’s just enormous.”
Barbara Murray, executive director of AIDS Partnership Michigan, agreed.
“First of all it’s a comfortable place for LGBTQ – I have to get all the letters in there – kids to be in a safe space, and that’s far better than being out on the streets,” she said.
McClelland said that she and the board plan to increase REC’s budget by $600,000 every year for the next three years in order to serve their kids. Those funds will be used to keep the young people safe, make sure they are fed, and provide them with the educational and vocational programming they need to make it in the wider world.
And give them a place to dance.
For more information, to make a donation, or to volunteer, visit http://www.ruthelliscenter.com or call 313-252-1950.