Evidence of homelessness is on view daily here in Grand Rapids—along Division Avenue in particular, where many shelters and services are located—but there is a group of homeless individuals who you aren’t likely to see on your commutes around town.
And it’s those that you don’t see who may be more at risk—the teens and young adults in the Grand Rapids area facing homelessness. In an effort to bridge the gap of support between the young and old, the organization HQ was founded as a drop-in center for homeless youth.
Luke Petsch, HQ’s development director, said it was very intentional for HQ to be a drop-in center, rather than an overnight shelter. HQ is open for specific two-hour blocks Monday through Thursday, with visits by appointment on Fridays. Additionally, each drop-in time caters to a specific age group, whether it is younger (14-19 years) or older (20-24 years). Petsch said young people face specific problems that homeless adults do not.
“They’re young and have limited life experience, having navigated lots of difficult circumstances,” Petsch said. “The ability to even understand how to fill out a complex intake form or give a detailed personal history could be enough of a barrier for someone coming and accessing the service.”
HQ does not provide overnight stays and it doesn’t require a “complex intake form,” members just have to verify their age. Because they are not overnight, they don’t have to worry about minors having problems accessing the facility, like having to get guardian consent.
“One of our goals is to be very low barrier,” Petsch said. “Adults are not always seen as safe spaces by our members and it takes a while to build trust … we’re going to lead with relationship rather than a specific service. We’re going to give you an opportunity to get comfortable in the space, get comfortable with the people, then start to open up and share their unique challenges, their hopes and dreams, before we connect them with specific services.”
When walking into HQ, you don’t see a stereotypical “shelter” space—it’s bright, vibrant, modern and full of art and various things to read and look at on the walls. There are unisex restrooms, a laundry room, showers, many places to sit, a library, a music corner and a computer lab. Petsch said the founders were intentional about making the space “beautiful.”
“Your environment, the context around you, kind of dictates what you feel like you deserve or should have available,” Petsch said. “We think that they should know consistently that they do deserve … the good things in life.
“Before we get a chance to have a conversation, navigating that physical space, they build a relationship with that location; knowing that things are easy to find and comfortable.”
The staff at HQ takes pride in supporting all needs of the homeless youth population, rather than just one. The services are divided into three categories: rest, resources and readiness.
Rest includes the basics to help teens feel fresh and ready to start the day.
“That’s going to be access to a reliable source of food, a place to do your laundry, showers, a place to store and take care of your critical items,” Petsch said. “As well as vital documents.”
Resources involve getting youth connected to resources for the things they need, depending on each individual situation, like housing and mental health support. These resources can sometimes be found in HQ or staff members can help connect youth with local resources in town.
“We strive to be a hub within the community, so as much as we’re able to build partnerships where community partners can offer their services within our space, that might make it easier,” Petsch said.
Thirdly, readiness is about education and employment.
“We recognize that those two things are really critical to long term sustainability; being able to maintain steady employment and to be able to pursue education as far as you’d like to,” Petsch said.
HQ staff helps with anything from college applications, resumes, employment applications and more.
Samuel Jones, the education and employment manager at HQ, said once youth get their basic needs met, the next step is usually getting a job, diploma or GED.
“We try to make sure we work with those young people to create that step by step process and help them achieve it,” Jones said. “Sometimes that takes months, sometimes that takes years.”
There are many reasons why a young person may experience homelessness, and they are mostly situational: the loss of a parent, domestic violence, family homelessness or other tragedy.
“For all the situations that can occur, the most common underlying factors are identity issues,” Petsch said. “They’re the color of a person’s skin, they’re who you love and how you identify your gender.”
LGBTQ+ teens are 10 times more likely to experience homelessness than their cisgender counterparts, and people of color are four times more likely to experience homelessness than there white counterparts, according to Petsch.
“Those are systemic things within the community,” he said. “We can provide as many services as we want in response to someone being in a tough position, but ultimately those numbers don’t start to balance out until we start to address some of the systemic barriers.”
As the year wraps up, HQ is celebrating its four-year anniversary, and having served 1,175 members. That’s more than one person for each day it’s been open.
“That’s shocking, the idea that there continues to be that need,” Petsch said. “It’s important that we challenge our community to … recognize that there is a lack of safe and affordable housing and that one of the real challenges as housing prices rise and our community seems to be getting wealthier from a business and economic perspective, is that that creates tensions for folks who are living on the edge of being able to pay their rent or are struggling to maintain that space.”
While it’s not great to see the consistent need, Petsch likes to focus on the positives. He said he and the staff love the members they serve, especially for who they are as individuals.
“What we see is people with great talent and ability and big hopes and dreams,” Petsch said. “When we center those hopes and dreams in the experience of working with a person, we (and our members) have really optimistic and lofty goals that are achievable.”
Learn more about HQ here.
*Photos courtesy of HQ