The Ruth Ellis Clairmount Center, a brand new facility in Detroit’s Piety Hill neighborhood, is giving LGBTQ+ youth facing homelessness in Southeast Michigan new hope just before the winter cold sets in.
According to the Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP), LGBTQ-identifying youth make up around 5-10% of the overall youth population, but 40% of the clientele served by youth service agencies. Young LGBTQ+ adults face a 120% higher risk of becoming homeless versus their heterosexual and cisgender peers. This disparity is at the heart of why Ruth Ellis Center (REC) executives embarked on the $16 million project. REC interim co-executive director Mark Erwin wrote in a joint statement with the Detroit Mayor’s office that the official opening on the center is a significant milestone for the non-profit and “an example of how we must respond to the disproportionate number of LGBTQ+ young people experiencing homelessness nationwide.”
The building, officially opened Oct. 7, fills 44,000 square feet of mixed-used space centered on supporting LGBTQ+ youth experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness, including 43 long-term housing units, a health and wellness center staffed by Henry Ford physicians and mental healthcare providers, a fitness center, a technology center, an onsite cafe and multiple community spaces. Residents can receive gender-affirming hormone therapy, sexual health services, HIV care, primary care and mental health treatments onsite.
Erwin walked Pride Source through the development and construction of the Center, which started more than seven years ago when REC began studying which housing model would be most beneficial to the community. Ultimately, REC concluded that a permanent supportive housing model would be most effective and the organization broke ground in late 2000.
Like most other construction projects over the past few years, Clairmount Center had to tackle COVID-19 and supply chain delays. Staying on schedule was impossible, though project plans remained mostly intact despite the complications, Erwin said.
Erwin noted that Clairmount Center’s location in Piety Hill was chosen as the result of careful decision making that took community input into account. Queer youth led the way, indicating that the neighborhood was a popular location for the community. “This was a neighborhood that they knew well,” he said. “[It] had access to public transportation, employment opportunities, and still within close distance to our Highland Park facilities.”
Visitors to the Center are sure to notice one of the final design touches as they approach the new building: a larger-than-life mural depicting Ellis herself. The artwork, created by Detroit artist Ijania Cortez, stretches four stories high. “It was great to be a part of something that reaches and touches the community,” Cortez said in a news release about the work. “Everything I do comes from my heart, and to be able to make this contribution to honor and celebrate Ruth Ellis’ life in this piece is a blessing to me.”
Funding the new expansion was a collaborative effort across a long list of government and private resources. In addition to individual donations and funds sourced by prominent figures like U.S. Rep Rashida Tlaib and Michigan Sen. Adam Hollier and partnerships with sources like the city of Detroit, Bank of America, the Michigan Department of Health, the McGregor Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the National Equity Fund, the Corporation for Supportive Housing and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta, Clairmount Center will benefit from state funds through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, which will supplement most of the rent for 34 of the units. An additional eight will go to residents earning less than half of the median Detroit household income ($16,500).
Currently, 32 young people reside at the Clairmount. Erwin said additional applications are in process.
Looking ahead, Erwin noted that REC is expanding beyond the Clairmount project, including an initiative to provide training and consultation for child welfare professionals nationwide; developing a new education and employment program called Thriving Futures, which will be launched in late 2023, and expanding the center’s behavioral health services because, Erwin said, “LGBTQ+ young people continue to experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicide risk and substance abuse.”
“This is an exciting time for Ruth Ellis Center,” Erwin continued. “We are very much looking forward to bringing each of these initiatives to the community we serve.”
In many ways, the Center is a continuation of the work REC has been doing for more than 20 years. Named after famed Detroit activist Ruth Ellis, known for many years prior to her death in 2001 as the nation’s oldest living out Black lesbian and the subject of the 1999 documentary “Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100,” the center continues Ellis’s legacy. It’s a far cry from REC’s first space, a tiny one-room drop-in center on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Six Mile Road above the adult bookstore and next to the strip club that opened just months before Ellis’s death in 2000.
Response to the new REC expansion has been exuberant.
Jey’nce Mizrahi Poindexter, a caseworker with REC, said in an Instagram post that working on the new building was “a labor of love” as well as an attempt to eradicate homeless in metro Detroit “particularly for #blackandbrown young people that identify as LGBTQ.”
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Kofi Adoma, a longtime friend of Ellis and one of REC’s first co-board chairs, said she is excited as well. Adoma suggested the center’s name at the first planning committee meeting in June of 1999. “I am beyond elated about the permanent supportive housing building (PSH),” she said. “Certainly, it was a long time coming. And I’m also thankful for the housing services that REC had put into place all along, including the transitional living program.”
Adoma said seeing the PSH portion of REC’s vision come to fruition brings her “joy” because “this is just what the founders envisioned. … My head is still spinning at how much the agency has grown.”
“I’m certain that Miss Ruth’s heavenly heart is warmed, that she’s cheering and dancing up a storm,” Adoma said, pointing out that when Ellis cut the ribbon at the very first drop-in center in 2000, at age 101, she was given reassurance that such a facility as this would one day become a reality.
“I have no doubt that her spirit lives in each and every room with the satisfaction that residents have a place they can call home.”