“Unstably housed.” That’s the term Ruth Ellis Center Executive Director Jerry Peterson uses to describe the living situation of many of the youth who seek out services at the drop in center and housing program. “Approximately 800 – 1,000 LGBTQ youth are unstably housed and are either on the street or could be on the street at any moment,” Peterson said.
“They get bounced around among family members, they live with friends or people who offer to help them, or they sleep on people’s couches as they can. When we think of ‘homeless youth’ we picture kids sleeping under bridges or in abandoned buildings. But this is more accurate. These youth have no stability in their lives and could find out on any day that they are out on the street.”
By focusing on this situation, Ruth Ellis Center more succinctly can assess the stability and the needs of the youth who come in to use the drop-in center. Some need just a little support, while others need a regular roof over their head, a place they can call home.
Aaron Brown, now 21, has been there. For several years, he was homeless. It was not that he did not have a roof over his head on any given night, but he lacked the stability of a regular place to call home.
When he was 16 years old he came out to his mother. “I wrote her a letter and I gave it to her. My aunt came by, and it gave her some time to think about it. My mom kind of always knew, but she was emotional about it. She said that it was okay, but not to tell anyone else,” Brown said. “I was pushed from my mom to live with my dad. It was my dad, his wife and kids. Although they were accepting, it felt like I didn’t belong.
“Then I went and lived with an older brother who was homophobic. I had brought a friend home one day when we were waiting for a ride to pick us up, and he said that my friend had to stay on the porch, that he wasn’t welcome inside. It didn’t feel right, so I moved in with my aunt, but then she put me out.
“I moved in with an older brother who is gay. It was pretty good there, but he got into an altercation with a friend of mine.”
Brown did his best to remain stable. He attended the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences where he was a dance major. He served on the yearbook committee and was part of the marching band. “I was one of the first openly gay young men from my graduating year,” he said.
Sometimes other students would make fun of him, but he also had a lot of support and teens that would stand up for him there.
“There are people who have it a lot worse,” Brown said. “I didn’t have bullying experiences there. The only thing you can be is yourself. At the end of the day you have to drive your own car and get to your own destination. I’ve never been the crying type. That is one thing I got from my parents. My momma said ‘pay it no mind,’ and my dad said ‘you’re a man of God, so nothing here can faze you.’ I learned not to dwell on things. Just face it, or put it aside to face it later.”
REC Residential Housing
In 2011, stability finally came into Brown’s life when he started coming to Ruth Ellis Center and entered their residential housing program.
“In the program it was like being in a home, like a real home. We had chores and rules, and people that were like family in a way,” he said. “We had to be productive. We had to use time each day to work or to be out looking for work. We did skill-building workshops. We cooked, we cleaned.”
And on top of it, Brown said, “being there gave us a space to really be ourselves.”
Due in large part to his experience at Ruth Ellis Center, Brown was able to finish high school and move on to an apartment of his own. He also went from being a resident, to a volunteer, to an intern, to a staff member of the Drop In Center.
“We make sure the youth check in. We serve food. We make sure the youth have anything they need. I also run the What’s T, a group where we meet and have a monthly discussion topic,” Brown said. “My current challenge is to keep the What’s T group interesting. Last month we did our own coming out stories, and they made posters to express their coming out stories in a creative way.”
Brown said he feels his place at Ruth Ellis Center is to have a calm, steady presence for youth that need it. “I’m a really peaceful person and in our community that’s really hard to find. I give them support they need and bring a positive influence.”
He said that sometimes when youth come in, it could be hard to tell if they are homeless or not. “People try to keep up an image until they realize people here are not judgmental at all. But you really have to get to know the youth before they’ll tell you what is really going on in their lives.”
The Drop In Center offers a clothes closet, laundry, kitchen, cyber center, activity space, resource area, personal hygiene products, counseling and other services that unstably housed and at risk youth need. It also provides a safe space for activities and interpersonal connection. Some nights there are 50-100 youth visiting the center. The housing program is at a separate location, and that gives stability to those who need it most.
Peterson said that of the 800-1,000 unstably housed youth in Detroit, about 500 of them visit Ruth Ellis Center at some point during the year. On average they access services ten times, though of course there are some who use services much more and some much less. “It’s an astounding reach,” he said. “We are lucky that we have so many strong partners in the area that make this work possible. Everyone in charge of systems that have significant impacts on children and youth in Wayne County are absolutely committed to treating LGBTQ fairly.”
Brown is certainly grateful. “Without Ruth Ellis Center, a lot of other people would be at a loss. We have groups here. Without these groups, there isn’t a common ground for us. No matter what happens out there, we all get along here.”
To learn more about Ruth Ellis Center visit their website at http://www.ruthelliscenter.org.