Clarion Call: A Plea to the Public

Rise in women’s shelter check-ins draws attention to system failures.
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Executive Director Thelma Ensink (far right) meets with women at Dégagé Ministries in November, 2023. Photo by Isabel Dowell.

Dégagé Ministries, 139 Sheldon Ave. SE, provides the only emergency shelter for women in the area. Recently, an uptick in the number of individuals seeking shelter has created cause for concern. In 2021, the organization had the capacity to serve 33 women per night, with ambitious plans to expand. By the summer of 2022 it had reached its goal and was serving 100 women per night. In 2023, Dégagé expanded once again, renovating its 3,500-square-foot fourth floor office to add 50 more beds. By November 2023, Dégagé’s was regularly accommodating roughly 125 women per night.

According to Executive Director Thelma Ensink, the unhoused population of Grand Rapids was around 700 in 2018. By October of 2023 that number had nearly doubled.

The organization identified the increasing homelessness trend as a result of factors like a surge in evictions, pandemic-related mental health challenges, and challenging economic conditions. To address the pressing need, Dégagé Ministries initiated the renovation of its 3,500-square-foot fourth floor, repurposing it to provide a safe and comfortable environment for women seeking shelter. The expansion included the installation of new bunk beds, contributing to a more comfortable and private environment for the women seeking refuge.

The renovation, managed in part by students from the YouthBuild program, was completed in early October, ahead of colder weather. Dégagé Ministries had temporarily relocated its administrative offices to 252 State Street, generously provided by Trinity Health Grand Rapids.

Executive Director Thelma Ensink told Grand Rapids Magazine at the time that she felt “so much relief to finally have enough space.” But that sense of relief was short lived.

In November 2023, Dégagé Ministries, along with several other organizations that serve the needs of the West Michigan unhoused community, put out a clarion call in the form of an open letter to the West Michigan Community. Despite the success of the expansion, the challenge of capacity once again had become a pressing issue.

The organizations collectively addressed the urgent need for both near and long-term solutions regarding the city’s homelessness crisis.

The letter further explained that economic hardships, the impact of COVID, coupled with a shortage of affordable housing had exacerbated the challenges faced by individuals and families experiencing homelessness in West Michigan. The letter highlighted the dire situation, noting the significant increase in homelessness compared to previous years:

“Homelessness is on the rise, and for many of these individuals, it is the first time they have experienced homelessness in their lives. According to the Point in Time count, there were 723 individuals experiencing homelessness in Kent County in 2018. In 2023, that number sharply increased to 1,239 individuals experiencing homelessness. Based on trends and current bed capacity in our community, an estimated 100 to 300 people could be without access to shelter services on the coldest winter nights.”

By early December, the women’s shelter was serving up to 125 women per night and working towards being able to accommodate 150 women per night. However, funding limitations were posing challenges to sustaining that figure throughout the winter.

Dégagé is dedicated to providing support to vulnerable populations and remains committed to ensuring that no one who needs its support is ever turned away. Ensink told Grand Rapids Magazine that a significant percentage of the organization is funded by “individuals who write $100 checks.” Visit degageministries.org to find out how to make a donation.

Dégagé Ministries recently expanded, adding more beds, but more are needed to adequately meet the needs of the community. Photo by Isabel Dowell.

The mission
The stated mission of Dégagé Ministries is ” To reflect the love of Christ to all who come through our doors by building relationships and offering programs that foster dignity and respect.” Its dedication to helping individuals meet basic needs starts with offering them a safe environment; a crucial first step to recovery. A pleasant, welcoming community center allows people experiencing long term or temporary homelessness a place to go to get out of the cold in the winter (or out of the heat in the summer).

Dégagé works to address an individual’s immediate needs, like providing a meal, and gathering information, all the while supporting the individual without judgment. If it is found that a client has family or a friend in another city who will house them, the organization will provide financial assistance in the form of a bus ticket to help them get there safely. Dégagé also provides clients with access to a 30-minute hot shower (towel provided), washing machines for clothing, and a hair salon.

Dégagé will also provide clothing if needed, and a bed to sleep in. The organization focuses on empowering individuals to overcome challenges associated with homelessness, which can take the form of “soft skills” training, and opportunities for personal and professional development. The ministry gives clients the opportunity to earn “Dégagé dollars” by working in the kitchen or bakery, or by doing other jobs at the center. The money can be used on the premises and at Open Door Bakery and the adjacent thrift shop. The center offers classroom activities, life skills, fitness, and other training, as well as access to computers for filling out job applications. Dégagé works with the local community in addressing core issues related to homelessness and poverty. For example, a Secretary of State mobile office visits the center so that people can get ID’s. The center also offers a quiet, comfortable space for unhoused individuals to recover in after a hospital stay or surgery. Dégagé does a lot, but the need for its services is still growing.


Factors that contribute to homelessness
Homelessness is a complex and multifaceted issue influenced by a combination of economic factors, social trends, and systemic failures.

Economic Factors: Inflation, job loss, and low wages relative to the cost of housing are factors that contribute to homelessness. Market rate for a one-bedroom apartment in Grand Rapids is $1200. A single person earning the average hourly rate in Grand Rapids ($18/ hour) would be spending nearly 40% of gross income on an apartment. In regard to inflation, according to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers, prices have grown by 19% overall since 2020. Covid relief funds that were helping some people keep pace with the cost of rising rentals and inflation in 2021-22 have since ceased.

Availability of affordable housing is a significant factor contributing to the unhoused population of Grand Rapids. The city is working on this and has received state funding in the form of grants, but the projects are still a couple of years from completion. Five housing developments across the city of Grand Rapids will benefit from more than $6.1 million awarded through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s second round of the Revitalization and Placemaking Program (RAP 2.0). The funds are for affordable rental and owner-occupied units.

Family and Domestic Issues: Family breakdowns, domestic violence, and other family-related issues can lead to homelessness. Individuals may leave a home to escape unsafe or unstable situations, contributing to their housing instability.

Systemic and Structural Factors: Discrimination against certain groups and gaps in the social safety net can disproportionately affect certain populations, increasing their vulnerability to homelessness.

Limited Access to Services: Access to social services, healthcare, and support programs is crucial for preventing and addressing homelessness. If individuals do not have easy access to these resources, it can exacerbate their vulnerability.

Challenges Faced by Specific Groups: Veterans, youth, and individuals with a history of incarceration, may face unique challenges that contribute to their risk of homelessness. “Exodus” is a local nonprofit for people with a CSC background.

Mental Health: Mental health issues (which can lead to substance abuse problems) can contribute to homelessness. Individuals facing these challenges may find it difficult to maintain stable housing and may not receive adequate support or treatment.

Efforts to address homelessness often require a collaborative approach involving government agencies, nonprofits, community organizations, and businesses. This may include strategies to provide mental health services, and implement supportive programs that address the root causes of homelessness.

An assortment of cookies at Open Door Bakery, 144 Division Avenue South. Photo by Isabel Dowell.

A Sweet Success Story – Open Door Bakery & Thrift on Div
In May 2023, Open Door Bakery opened its doors to the public. Initially started as a fundraising initiative for Dégagé Ministries by two local women, the bakery now has a retail space and central kitchen adjacent to Dégagé, located at 144 Division Avenue South in downtown Grand Rapids. The expansion marked a significant step in Dégagé’s ongoing efforts to enhance its footprint and services. The retail opening complements previous campus renovations, including relocating the main entrance to Sheldon Boulevard for a more pedestrian-friendly experience. This expansion follows the success of Dégagé’s first retail operation, Thrift on Div, situated adjacent to the main building and launched last year.

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