The Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness reports that in 2018 there were just over 65,000 homeless in our state. Nearly 15,000 are in the Grand Rapids area. MCAH stats also show that 34% of single adults over age 25 are women and 49% of youth ages 18 to 24 are women. Area nonprofits are working hard to address the needs of the female demographic, to provide housing and services to all women including pregnant teens and transgender women.
Covenant House Michigan’s Grand Rapids campus recently opened its floor for women ages 18 to 24. Covenant House, an international, faith-based organization, opened here in November 2018 with 14 beds for young men. The floor for 14 young women opened in June, with the first girl entering on June 15.
“The needs of young women are different than young men; we wanted to be sure to implement best practices,” said LoRae Robinson, residential program manager for Covenant House Grand Rapids. “We want our staff to be compassionate for young women who have experienced trauma.”
Women, she said, tend to verbalize their trauma stories and their mental health struggles. “We want to walk a little closer with them on their journey of homelessness,” Robinson said.
Other nonprofits that offer shelter to women and girls
Degage Ministries’ Open Door Women’s Center — According to the website, Degage has served nearly 5,000 women through Open Door, at 144 S. Division Ave. Up to 40 women 18 and over can check in (after completing an assessment with the Salvation Army Housing Assistance Program) by 8 p.m. each night, leaving Open Door by 7:30 a.m. the next morning. A Patron Advocate can help create a plan to secure housing.
HQ Runaway & Homeless Youth Drop-in Center — Drop in during prescribed hours for a shower, nap, laundry services and a listening ear. 320 State St. SE, Grand Rapids
If you need help finding shelter, dial 2-1-1 to get connected with area agencies.
Young women find Covenant House through word of mouth and through community organizations such as HQ, Mel Trotter Ministries and 2-1-1. They can stay up to 120 days, with the option to extend their stay under specific circumstances. Each woman has her own room, with communal bathrooms, study space and recreation space.
Baylea Meek, 19, was living in her car when a friend she met at a Black Lives Matter rally recommended Covenant House. She was the fourth woman accepted into the program.
“Staying here showed me that I’m not alone, that there are places like this that take you in, change your life, and better your life,” Meek said. “They have your back in everything.”
Meek now has a job at a veterinarian clinic, is saving money and planning to get an apartment. “Covenant House helped me with my physical and mental health, they guide you in the right way,” she said. “You feel safe and at home.”
Short-term and long-term needs are met at Mel Trotter Ministries, which has more than 60 emergency shelter beds for women. MTM’s website says that single women served at MTM have increased 40%.
“Many women have gone through difficult relationships and need to heal, as well as find self-confidence and value again in order to get into housing and employment,” said Mary Engle, director of shelter services for MTM, which provides shelter for women ages 18 and up. The youngest guest, according to Engle, was three weeks past her 18th birthday; the oldest was 78.
“There is a wide range of people who come in,” Engle said. “People can have college degrees, can experience homelessness because of divorce or death of a spouse. But there’s a huge misconception that those who come in don’t want to work. I have gals who work two jobs.”
Mel Trotter Ministries also offers what it calls R&R space specifically for those who identify as transgender. For trans women, “it’s a numbers thing,” said Amanda Nelson, advocate for the transgender shelter. “If she isn’t fully transitioned and goes into the male space, there can be 150 men there. There are comments and questions; there is so much vulnerability as a trans woman.”
Of the women who come into MTM, Engle estimates that 90% have experienced trauma and if trauma wasn’t there before, it is now because of homelessness. The biggest issues behind homelessness, according to Engle, are broken relationships and mental health. Nelson adds generational issues to the list, “things they’ve carried their whole lives,” such as chronic homelessness.
“We are stepping up our services to support women,” Engle said. “We are trying to feed into women about who they are, their value and self-worth, and help them regain confidence. A demonstration of compassion starts these women healing, wanting to improve and find themselves again. They want to again feel they can stand on their own two feet.”
Gaining independence is part of the goal of The Lighthouse for Teen Mothers, a program for homeless girls ages 14 to 19 who are either pregnant or parenting. The first house in Belmont opened in summer 2017 and the house in Kentwood in December 2018.
“The girls really have to want an education, want a job, want to better their lives for themselves and their child or children,” said Ani Blickley, executive director of Lighthouse.
Looking for a way to help homeless women and girls this holiday season? Opportunities abound.
The Lighthouse for Teen Mothers
Mel Trotter Ministries
Covenant House Grand Rapids
She said Lighthouse gets referrals from Wedgewood, Mel Trotter Ministries, 2-1-1 Housing, Alpha Center of Grand Rapids, Pregnancy Resource Center, Bethany Christian Services and HQ. The faith-based nonprofit has requirements related to attending school, employment, cell phone use and substance abuse. The girls stay without cost, and get help with transportation to school or jobs, child care, budgeting and even learning to do laundry and make meals.
“The most heartbreaking roadblock to success is the broken families these girls come from and the trauma that has caused,” Blickley said. “There is often physical, sexual or emotional abuse. They learn ‘fight, flight or freeze.’ If they fight, they end up in jail. If they flee, they end up on the streets. If they freeze, they accept the abuse as normal.”
She describes one mother at Lighthouse who “has been an instrument of men her entire life, yet this beautiful young lady is a great mom. God loves these girls and loves their babies.”
One of the barriers to housing, according to Engle at MTM, is the housing market itself. “Some ladies have income and are stable but are still denied help with housing. The cost of housing is huge and there aren’t enough affordable options,” she said.
Women bring so many additional layers to homelessness, Nelson said. They menstruate and must carry or have access to hygiene items; they have babies and children to care for; they are more vulnerable to rape and robbery. Trans women have higher rates of mental health issues in part due to trauma and fewer accepting LGBTQ counselors, and the expense of transitioning procedures. Add in the rising cost of housing, and women face an uphill battle.
“We love to see the community get on board to support our homeless women,” said Engle. “Thank you, and there is still such a big need.”