From Homeless Michigan Teen to City Commission Candidate: Spencer Calhoun’s Ultimate Comeback Story

The 20-year-old union organizer wants to be a voice for the people

As a candidate and community activist with years of experience knocking doors, Spencer Calhoun knows there’s often no telling who will answer. Not long ago, Calhoun came face to face with a constituent whose most grave concern for the city of Mount Clemens was the prospect of drag queen story time at the public library. And she asked Calhoun for his opinion on it.

“I told her that I completely support the right of people in our community to freely express themselves,” said Calhoun, who is openly gay. He called the library’s programming fantastic but told her people don’t have to bring their children if they don’t want to. “I said, ‘Of course you have a right to feel that way. I completely disagree with you. People need to feel welcome and valued in our community.’”

Calhoun couldn’t believe the woman signed his nominating petition for city commissioner. She said it meant a lot to her that he explained his position and remained level-headed. “And so that meant a lot to me, too,” Calhoun said.

While Calhoun isn’t native to Mount Clemens, he is perhaps more passionate about his adopted hometown than most — for good reason. Calhoun was homeless as a teen, and the city welcomed him with open arms.

“I'm a board member on the nonprofit that served me as a homeless youth, Comprehensive Youth Services,” Calhoun said. He has also mentored students. For three years, Calhoun went door to door registering people to vote and learning what issues they wanted brought before city officials — well before deciding to throw his hat in the ring.

While openly queer politicians are not as rare as they used to be, being out publicly holds particular resonance for Calhoun: He was homeless because he was kicked out for being gay. 

“The ultimate rejection for me is my parents rejecting me simply because of who I love,” Calhoun said. He said he has struggled with his sexuality. “My parents are very strict religiously. And when I told them that I was gay, they told the elders in that congregation. Essentially, I was shunned by everyone.” He was 15 or 16 at the time. 

“And then as time went on, things really just got worse,” Calhoun continued. “And my dad and stepmom, just one day, I came home from work for my first job at Kroger, and they told me to pack my bags and get out. They couldn't take it anymore. That’s how I ended up in Mount Clemens.”

Spencer Calhoun. Courtesy photo
Spencer Calhoun. Courtesy photo

Calhoun said he still has those struggles and sometimes experiences depression. But he loves Mount Clemens because he feels safe there. And he says a lot of LGBTQ+ people and people of color feel safe there too. “And I want to keep it that way,” Calhoun said, “And I want it to improve. We hold Macomb County Pride here. There are a lot of fantastic allies in the community, and I just want to keep that going.”

It would mean a lot to Calhoun to be one of the only openly LGBTQ+ elected officials in Macomb County. “I'm hoping that by doing good work on the city commission and continuing to make Mount Clemens a more welcoming place, I would be one of the first, for sure. Not one of the last,” he said.

In addition to addressing homelessness and the poor condition of public housing, Calhoun is concerned about Mount Clemens’ tax base. Inside the four square miles of the city’s boundaries, there are more than 30 churches and several Macomb County administrative buildings, leaving about half of the city’s land untaxable. 

“We have pretty high taxes,” Calhoun acknowledged. “And residents are really starting to get concerned about how high their taxes are and how that relates to the services that they're receiving.” He said when it comes to infrastructure, their hands are often tied because Mount Clemens lacks the tax base to provide adequate essential services.

As an elected official, Calhoun would look to government partners for sustainable solutions. “I don't want to see us really taxing people out where people just can't live here anymore,” he said.

Calhoun would also like to see the city’s downtown corridor continue to improve. But more than anything, he wants to advocate for residents’ needs — and he’s willing to be creative.

“One person told me that here in Mount Clemens, a lot of people are just looking for ‘a guy who knows a guy.’ And so when it comes to solutions, sometimes we have to go out of the box to get them.” Calhoun would help residents connect people to resources or individuals who could assist them, something that he said hasn’t happened in the past. To identify the community’s needs, Calhoun posted a survey on his campaign website.

At the age of 20, Calhoun would be the youngest member of the current city commission. In 2022, he not only successfully managed the campaign of State Rep Denise Mentzer, Calhoun also ran for school board but came up short by just 54 votes. He’s also been active with the Democratic party as a campaign volunteer.

Calhoun, who holds certificates in robotics and mechatronics, is currently enrolled at Macomb Community College, yet much of his day is spent as a full-time union organizer for the Michigan AFL-CIO. He agreed it’s an exciting time to be fighting for workers’ rights.

“I am very happy to see that we are standing together on a united front to fight for better wages and benefits for employees — and not just the auto workers,” Calhoun said. “It's nice to see that people are working together.” He said they have employees on strike at Blue Cross Blue Shield and informational pickets at Delta down at the airport.

“We've really seen the value in unions,” he added. “And through our strength, we're going to see some results. And I'm just very excited to play a small role in that.”

Spencer Calhoun on the picket line. Courtesy photo
Spencer Calhoun on the picket line. Courtesy photo

Calhoun’s hands-on approach on behalf of Michigan workers is mirrored in how he has advocated for young people experiencing homelessness. Frustrated with the control the state has over homeless youth, Calhoun has poured hours into this advocacy work, recently testifying in committee hearings on three bills focused on healthcare for this population. 

Calhoun believes it’s important for young people to stay engaged in politics. “We're the people who are going to have to live the longest with these decisions that are coming up,” he said.

“In terms of something like climate change, I personally am worried that time is kind of running out for us to solve some of these really big issues,” Calhoun said. “And then you throw in other uncertainties and things that are happening on the national and global stage.”

He mentioned gun violence as close as Oxford High School and Michigan State University. “There's a real urgency for me.” 

While he appreciates and benefits from the wisdom of older people, Calhoun said younger people deserve a seat at the table too, and shouldn’t be an afterthought. 

Chris Kipp, a former board member of Macomb County Pride, became a friend and mentor to Calhoun after Calhoun was homeless and taken in by Kipp’s neighbor. The neighbor didn’t know how to help a queer teen, so he reached out to Kipp.

Impressed that Calhoun was able to graduate high school despite being homeless, Kipp noted Calhoun’s intelligence and called him energetic and a people pleaser.  

“I think Spencer is — I know it sounds cliché — but of the people, for the people,” Kipp said. “He's been there. He knows. And he wants to help communities.”

That’s how Calhoun frames it, too. He’s running to be a voice for the people.

“I came here when I was 17 as a homeless youth, and I stayed in a long-term transitional living program for eight months,” Calhoun said. “And people in this community went out of their way to take care of me. They bought me clothes when I needed clothes. They helped me to find jobs, provided mentoring. And so I've seen just in our community that there are a lot of people who need someone to speak up for them.”

Learn more about Calhoun and his campaign at Vote now through Nov. 7.