Fulfilling a Need
National statistics reveal that LGBTQ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than their straight or cisgender counterparts. And while on average, 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, that figure is believed to be even greater in Grand Rapids, according to Thomas Pierce. Pierce is the executive director of the Grand Rapids Pride Center.
“In Grand Rapids, in West Michigan, we tend to see a higher skew of that number just because of the higher level of religiosity and conservatism,” Pierce said. “We have a lot of young people that come in here and say they’re either living in an environment that’s not healthy, so they can’t be who they are, or they try to be who they are and it’s been aggressively suppressed by their parents or family members. So they are either homeless or becoming homeless.”
Of 11 social and support groups, the Pride Center’s youth group is its largest, at about 60 weekly participants, said Pierce.
Observing the needs of LGBTQ youth first-hand, Pierce was excited to see five West Michigan agencies come together to open Union House, a home specifically designed as affordable housing for homeless LGBTQ youth ages 18 to 24.
“We have worked closely with a lot of the partners on that project … and we are really excited about this,” Pierce said. “This is something that we have wanted to see for a long time. We have discussed our organization, Pride Center, going in and doing some training with the staff who are working at the house and working with the youth that live there.”
The coalition is comprised of 3:11 Youth Housing, an organization that owns or operates a number of homes for young adults ages 18 to 24; Grand Rapids HQ, a drop-in center for youth who are experiencing either homelessness or unsafe or unstable housing; Inner City Christian Federation, a nonprofit housing corporation that provided the property and renovated the house itself; Mel Trotter Ministries, whose mission is to end hunger and homelessness; and Mars Hill Bible Church. Between The Lines spoke with Lauren VanKeulen, cofounder and executive director of 3:11.
“It was a collaborative project,” VanKeulen said proudly. “All five organizations saw, and continue to see, the need for a specific support in housing for youth who identify as LGBTQ.” She said they were able to move forward when Mars Hill offered to fund the project.
While all of the organizations with the exception of HQ are faith-based, Christian agencies, VanKeulen offered assurance that there is no faith requirement or expectation. Pierce confirmed that assertion.
“I know that when they say that, they mean it. We have been really happy to see that when they say anybody, they mean anybody,” Pierce said, in reference to 3:11. “There’s no limitation or rule or expectation that you’re going to participate in anything religiously-based. So that’s great to hear. I think 3:11 running the house with their model is one of the best options we have in this area.”
Union House accommodates three youth at a time, and residents are expected to pay rent of $300 per month, which includes utilities. The first month is free; however, up to three months may be free depending on individual circumstances. There is an in-house 3:11 Youth House Mentor to provide regular support as needed. Additionally, a case manager works with residents on identifying educational and vocational goals, as well as budgeting.
“There’s no mandate they need to have a job when they move in, but then obviously … all entities will work with the young people to get employment … but really from a youth-centered perspective,” VanKeulen said. “So, what are your goals? What do you want to do with your life? And how can we walk alongside you to get there?”
VanKeulen said their model has a high rate of success.
“Our goal is that 90% of youth who move out of 3:11 housing reunite with family or move into housing of their own upon move out,” she said. “We do that through a variety of ways: through relationship building, through house manager engagement, [through] meals, through case manager support that Mel Trotter’s providing [and] through the drop-in and support that HQ will be providing.”
Youth generally stay in 3:11’s supportive housing for around a year and a half, but it’s very individualized because they never want to create a gap in services, VanKeulen said.
At this time, the project is funded solely by the five partner agencies.
“All the organizations have said that we believe in this enough that we are going to offer our staff time and our resources for this project, but we are seeking out additional dollars that would help us be able to maintain that,” VanKeulen said. “We are taking donations and volunteer help to make the house a home, so there’s information on our website to do that. People have been signing up and have been really supportive of the project,” she said.
Initially, VanKeulen defined the mission of 3:11 as developing safe and affordable housing for youth who are experiencing homelessness and partnering in their transition to healthy interdependence. We asked what she meant by “interdependence” as opposed to independence.
“We know that none of us are fully independent,” VanKeulen said. “Many of us have individuals in our lives that support us in our journeys, in the highs and lows, in the ups and downs. Yes, we want young people to be self-sufficient, to support themselves … but we know that they need each other. So one of the ways we’ve seen that with youth who’ve moved from 3:11 houses, they’ve moved in with one another.
“The relationships they’ve developed with each other become strong, long-lasting, even lifetime relationships. We have young people who lived in 3:11 homes five years ago who come back every single Christmas for a holiday party and/or a Thanksgiving dinner, always knowing they have a place to go in what can be a lonely holiday season,” she continued.
Union House is the only home in the Grand Rapids area VanKeulen and Pierce are aware of that exclusively caters to youth who are LGBTQ. It addresses a critical need.
“Everyone needs their community,” Pierce said. “That’s why we exist here, at the Pride Center. Everyone needs their own space. And people ask, ‘Are we separating them from something?’ And we’re like, ‘No, they need a space where they can be … themselves.’ And when you think about where you’re most comfortable … where you’re most yourself, where you can be most relaxed, it should be your home. I know that’s how I built my home. I created it so it’s most comfortable to me and my family. And some people take that for granted.”
Pierce noted the anxieties queer youth can face just by choosing where to shower or go to the bathroom in general housing. In what they should call home, some already vulnerable young people lack a space they can feel safe.
“At the Pride Center, we create that safe space — but we create it once a week, with all their friends,” Pierce said. “And they can drop in if they have the means to, but you should have the right to go to sleep where you’re 100% comfortable and you don’t have to worry about making someone else uncomfortable with who you are. So having a house, having a home be that space, is the best place it can be.”
Learn more about the Grand Rapids Pride Center here.