DETROIT – One year after opening Ruth’s House, their sophisticated transitional living program for young LGBT adults, the revolutionary Ruth Ellis Center is opening a short-term youth shelter for LGBT teens ages 12-17. Scheduled to open in the early March, the shelter will occupy half of Ruth’s House.
“The original plan was to open a separate house for the shelter,” said REC Executive Director Grace McClelland. “But when the Feds didn’t give us the money we asked for we had to come up with a plan B, and that was to divide the first house.”
The center asked for $200,000 for the shelter, which will serve approximately 120 teens annually, and received half of that. The sharing of the house means that for the moment the capacity of the transitional living program will be reduced from 10 to five, and a fire escape and other safety provisions are in the process of being added.
“The board designed Ruth’s House with the understanding that there would only be adults living in it,” McClelland said. “We had to do some remodeling so that the house would meet state licensing standards.”
McClelland said the center has no plans of abandoning the transitional living program and hopes to find way to restore its capacity and hopefully even increase it soon.
“We’re at capacity,” she said. “There are calls every week for kids who need that space.”
Currently, the center owns a second house next to Ruth’s House, which was originally earmarked to house the shelter. That house is now scheduled to open in the fall as a long-term state-funded group home for LGBT teens ages 12-18.
“The State has said through various sources, including caseworkers themselves, that there is a need for residential programs to place LGBT youth,” said McClelland. “LGBT youth don’t do as well in mainstream programs. They really wished us Godspeed in getting it up and running. They were really excited that we were going to do this.”
The transformation of half of Ruth’s House into the short-term shelter will require the center to implement several programmatic changes and increase their staff. It’s a tremendous amount of work to be done in a very short time. Still, REC Board Chair John Allen said it will realign the center with its original mission.
“A youth shelter was what the founders of the program talked about creating when we first met in 1999,” he said. “So we’re pleased and proud to be instituting this new component at this time.”
A new opportunity, a new crisis
But even as the center enters a new period of growth and expansion, its earlier programming has suddenly been placed in jeopardy. For the past three years, the federal government’s Department of Health and Human Services has given $100,000 to REC’s street outreach program. This year, however, the DHHS has decided not to fund the program at all, citing the peculiar concern that it discriminates against heterosexual teens.
Along with a rejection letter from the DHHS, McClelland received copies of the comments made during the peer review process that’s she still struggling to comprehend.
“The applicant does not address the barrier to the provision of services to youth who are not LGBT,” the document read. “The applicant does not address that their targeting of a specific population may present a barrier to other youth seeking services from them.”
McClelland said the program does not discriminate against straight teens and actually welcomes them. She also said that according the DHHS’s own statistics, LGBT teens are extremely at risk, representing 40 percent of the 1.7 million runaway and homeless youth in the country.
“I’m really shocked,” she said. “This was the first federal grant I authored that I didn’t get in 15 years.”
The center has the opportunity to reapply for funding next year. In the meantime, it’s calling on the community to help raise the lost $100,000, which represents 80 percent of the street outreach program’s budget.
“We are appealing to individual donors, foundations and corporations to assist us in keeping this program up and operating,” McClelland said.
Beth Bashert, REC’s director of development, said she is confident that the agency will overcome this cash shortfall and this temporary loss will eventually amount to no more than a speed bump on the new trail the center is blazing.
“There’s a tremendous amount of growth and expansion the board is talking about,” she said. “The vision for the center is to become the leading agency nationally working with LGBT youth.”