What Can One Gay Politician Offer the Ruth Ellis Center?

Rep. Mike McFall wanted to find out for himself

When State Rep. Mike McFall came to tour the Ruth Ellis Center (REC) campus recently, he wasn’t yet aware that his new in-district office is located within blocks of the main REC building on Victor Street. Housed in what was formerly a popular restaurant, the resource center will hold a grand opening celebration Sept. 9.

In his first term as state rep. and part of the seven-member LGBTQ legislative caucus, McFall began his political career on city council in Hazel Park, at the center of Michigan House District 8. His passion for mental health, as evidenced by a recent town hall with Henry Ford Health on the subject, was one reason for McFall’s visit to REC. Last year, McFall told Pride Source the best way to deal with the state’s poor mental health system, at the root of many issues, was from a seat in Lansing.

“I’m really happy you’re in my district,” McFall told REC Executive Director Mark Erwin during the tour, which Pride Source tagged along for. “I wanted to know the resources you provide so that way, if someone comes in, we can point them in the right direction because that's the primary use of that office.” McFall’s office is working with Wayne County Community College to offer GED services, job fair opportunities and other resources.

Representing a narrow north-south district that runs from 14 Mile Road in Madison Heights to Canfield in Detroit, McFall felt he and his staff at the resource center would be better able to direct the public to REC’s services after he toured the facilities.

Erwin explained that REC space was initially small (around 500 square feet) but grew as the organization responded to the needs of the community they serve. In partnership with Henry Ford Health, REC added healthcare to its services in 2016 after learning that most clients were not connected to any primary care. 

“When we explored those conversations,” Erwin said, “we started learning more about the experiences they were having in healthcare settings. Trans young people being misgendered, being asked inappropriate questions.” As a gay man, McFall said he could relate to the importance of LGBTQ-friendly healthcare providers. Primary care, STI testing and treatment, HIV care and gender-affirming care for youth are some of the healthcare services available.

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Ruth Ellis Drop-In Center. Photo: Ellen Shanna Knoppow

McFall commented later how impressed he was not just with the healthcare services REC provides but their integrated behavioral health services, in particular. “It's something that hits very close to home,” McFall told Pride Source after the tour.

Krystina Edwards, community engagement manager, led the tour, which began at the health and wellness center and the drop-in center. Laundry facilities, a computer center, the center’s clothes donation closet, the dance floor and a community food pantry are some of the amenities that draw people to the space. Brightly colored murals add a feeling of warmth. 

Kofi House, established in 2019, was another stop on the tour. Located in Detroit on Hazelwood Street, the historic home was gifted by a longtime supporter of REC. Like REC’s other offerings, Kofi House was the response to a direct need. 

“One of the things that we really embrace is creating opportunities for feedback from the community that we serve,” Erwin said. “We learned that historically, lesbian and queer-identified young women didn't necessarily feel as affirmed in some of our spaces because, like everywhere else, young men can dominate that space pretty quickly.”

Kofi House centers on outreach to lesbians, queer women and girls and offers a room suitable for yoga, a library and kitchen, and upstairs spaces for therapy and childcare. And although the alarm was tripped upon entry, it only reflects the organization’s dedication to security. Likewise, one notable feature of the Clairmount Center, REC's latest major project, is that its residents had input into the security features of the building. 

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Claimount Center. Photo: Ellen Shanna Knoppow

Clairmount is a queer-affirming affordable housing facility that opened last year. It features 43 apartments, a healthcare center, the Ruth Ellis Institute, a technology center and an art therapy room. Outside, a fenced-in area will be a space for a garden and seating. REC currently houses 70 young people in the Clairmount Center and other housing. Case management is part of the program.

“One of the things I noticed is that none of it was very cold and stark,” McFall noted after the tour. “It felt very welcoming, which is great. [And] not just welcoming, but something that feels like home.” 

McFall and Erwin discussed the first-ever $10 million grant in the governor’s budget for LGBTQ+ health disparities, to be distributed by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “We just passed the budget, and in the budget, there's actually funding in there specifically for LGBTQ resources,” McFall said. “So I'm hoping to be able to guide [REC] as best as possible on how to get that funding from the state.”

Erwin had ideas in terms of infrastructure.

“Security upgrades are a huge need for all the LGBT-identified organizations, but certainly ours as well, because of just the number of young people who are coming into the space,” Erwin said. McFall noted the recent murder of Ashia Davis, a Black transgender woman in Highland Park, as well as the anti-trans rhetoric in politics today, as two reasons that keeping the facilities and the community safe are paramount.

Impressed overall, McFall was interested to hear what he could bring to the table. 

“I often get asked, 'What am I bringing?'” McFall said. “And I'm like, I'm not telling you what you need for your community. You tell me what you need for your community. I think oftentimes in predominantly lower-income communities, they're used to people coming in and just telling them what they're going to get. And so I've been really trying to change that mindset with the people that I've talked to. So that's not why I'm here. I'm not here to tell you what you need. I'm here to listen to what you need.”

Erwin, too, is a leader who says he prioritizes the needs of the people he serves. 

“I've been at the Ruth Ellis Center for 12 years, and I think that I always came into my work here with the notion that I am not the expert,” Erwin said. “People that we serve are the experts. And it's my job to identify and secure the resources that they need to pursue whatever it is that they want to pursue.”

Founded in 1999, Ruth Ellis Center (REC) has established a national reputation for quality and innovation in providing trauma-informed services for lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ+) youth and young adults, with an emphasis on young people of color, experiencing homelessness, involved in the child welfare system, and/or experiencing barriers to health and wellbeing. For more information, visit