DETROIT – It was a dream five years in the making, and now it has come true. The Ruth Ellis Center celebrated the grand opening of its first transitional living center, the aptly named Ruth’s House, on Thursday, June 10.
“This is an introduction from the Ruth Ellis Center to the social service community, and the gay community, showcasing our program, which we think is a top of the line program,” said Beth Bashert, REC’s director of development. “So that’s what today is, it’s kind of a kick-off.”
Over 50 people showed up for the kick-off at Ruth’s House, which is situated between Detroit’s New Center area and the historic Boston-Edison district. Each had the chance to meet and speak with the house’s first residents: Eryk, 19; Shawn, 18; and Tim-Tim, 18.
“It’s a safe space,” said Eryk, on the best part about living at Ruth’s House. “I get to be myself and I can do what I like around this house and it looks like Martha Stewart designed my house so just being here is great. I knew they said that we would have a house to live in, but I never thought that the house would go to this extreme. This house is very big, very nice, nicer than any house I’ve stayed in.”
For Shawn, his roommates make the house special. “I live with the people I love, my best friends,” he said. “I like the staff a lot. It’s fun. It’s like a big sorority house.”
Finally, Tim-Tim cherishes her new home for the life lessons that it teaches her.
“It means a lot to me because I think I’m in a better place,” she said. “It’s a good place to live for me to get on the right track. It keeps me on my feet.”
All of the residents of Ruth’s House are kept on their feet. They split all the household chores with the round-the-clock staff and are responsible for everything from scrubbing toilets to cooking dinner. It’s the structure of the program that helps prepare the residents to live independently, and it’s the structure that the residents say they have the most difficulty adjusting to. Still, they don’t deny that the structure is good for them.
“It helps me because it forces me to do the things I need to do, whether I want to or not,” said Eryk. “So as it’s a structured program it also structures my life and makes me learn to manage my time and also how to be more responsible and I’m learning things at this house that I would have learned, but I would have learned in my time.”
Getting the residents used to structure is a challenge not only for them, but also for the staff.
“You negotiate constantly with them to teach them that, especially young people who are runaway and homeless, living on the streets, they don’t know what structure is,” said REC Executive Director Grace McClelland. “Every young person wants to be structured. It’s inherent. We like that safety that structure creates, so you kind of bring them into it slowly. And that’s what we did. We made three adaptations to the program in three months adding structure, increasing the level of structure because they were the first kids in the house.”
McClelland said she plans to continue making adjustments and adding structure for the foreseeable future.
“It’ll be continual while the whole program is open, until I’m not here any more,” she said. “That’s just the way that I feel. We can always do something better for the kids so we’re constantly looking for ways to refine the program. No major changes, nothing drastic that will upset their lives, but just ways to make things better for them.”
The staff of the center is also looking at ways to help more kids. They’ve purchased the house next to Ruth’s House and are in the process of renovating it. Once renovations are complete, the center plans to house children 13-17 in it. Then there’s the shelter.
“We are currently submitting for a new grant, in addition to our renewals, and the new grant will be for basic shelter,” said Bashert. “So for the kids that are not ready to go from the street to a transitional living program, we will have a place for them to stay for a night or a week or a month. And that, we think, is definitely necessary. We’ve got kids that are coming into the drop-in center that are squatting in houses nearby, that do not have a safe place to stay. They’re couch surfing from friends’ house to friends’ house. So the basic shelter is just a big priority for us.”
Indeed, the work is never done and the dream constantly expands, said REC Board Co-chair John Allen, who has been with the center since its inception five years ago.
“It feels great to be here, but as great as it feels to be here there’s so much more that’s got to get done,” Allen said at the open house. “I guess we’re living in the future so much. It’s good to stop and celebrate being here today, but we’ve got so many other things that are on the radar screen that are coming.”