It’s been 20 years since Marge Palmerlee first became the executive director of Dégagé Ministries, a nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless and struggling individuals in Grand Rapids get back on their feet.
On a daily basis, the organization sees between 400 to 500 patrons. It provides them with a plethora of services, including meals; access to hygiene facilities; a laundromat; transportation vouchers; job search and housing assistance; clothing; referrals for health, dental and eye care needs; assistance with obtaining and filling out paperwork for things like identification cards; and a 40-bed on-site women’s shelter.
When Palmerlee first came to Dégagé 25 years ago as a volunteer, she’d had little experience working in the area of homelessness, but she said she felt something in her heart that implored her to get involved in social justice.
“I’d gone to a Richard Foster seminar on social justice, and he said we all need to be involved with social justice, but some (of us) are called to specifically work in that area. He said if God is calling you to be involved in social justice, don’t deny that call.”
Palmerlee spent 24 years as an accounting manager with Roger’s Department store. After the Richard Foster seminar, she picked up the phone and called Dégagé to see if they needed volunteers. After five years, she was asked to join the organization as its ministry coordinator.
“There were only four employees then,” she said. “We did dinners and were open a few mornings for donuts and coffee.”
When her predecessor left, Palmerlee was asked to become the new executive director.
“I kept saying no and finally they asked what will it take for you to say yes? I had worked at Roger’s Department store for 24 years before I came here, and I had absolutely no experience in fundraising. They said, ‘How about if we hire you as a development director?’ So I said, ‘okay.’”
Within three years, Palmerlee presented the board with a plan to grow the organization’s services. “In 2000, we opened the life enrichment center,” she said.
Palmerlee had observed a strong need for job and housing assistance, as well as making basic hygiene services available to Dégagé patrons.
“In those early days, I’d hear time after time, ‘If I could only get a job, do you know where I could get a job?’”
The patrons also talked about struggling to do their laundry, take a shower and get a haircut. “We put in those basic hygiene services that really impact how someone sees themselves,” Palmerlee said.
Dégagé also added a message board and mail center. “Those services many of us take for granted that really make a difference when someone is trying to stay connected,” she said.
Transportation was another big issue for patrons. Today, Dégagé gives out $22,000 worth of bus tickets to help its patrons get to and from appointments, job interviews and meetings with potential landlords.
Dégagé offers patrons up to 60 jobs a day they can perform in exchange for vouchers they can then use for certain services offered at the facility.
While Palmerlee has been executive director, a lot has changed along Division Avenue, where the organization is housed.
“Dégagé has been in the Heartside neighborhood for all of its 50 years,” Palmerlee said. “When I started, there was nothing down here. It was all boarded up buildings, and it was definitely a scary place. People would say, ‘You go down there?’ Now, it’s a place of diversity. I’ve heard it’s the most diverse neighborhood in the city.”
Palmerlee said that diversity includes people, businesses, incomes, housing and any other category of diversity you can think of. She also noted there are new challenges that come with all of the growth and diversity.
Palmerlee also has seen an increase in collaboration between the many agencies helping homeless individuals, which she said has been particularly impactful for everyone involved.
What hasn’t changed, she said, is that people are people.
“Homelessness is a label that does not define people, and that is the same today as 20 years ago,” she said. “There are people that just need a little assistance to get back on their feet.”
She noted others might struggle with mental illness, substance abuse and other overwhelming issues that make it harder to get out of homelessness, but she said no matter someone’s situation, Dégagé is committed to “walking alongside” its patrons.
“We are never going to give up on someone, but it’s got to be a concerted effort as a community coming alongside them,” she said.
Palmerlee said no one is ever so poor they have nothing to give, and Dégagé offers anyone the opportunity to put their skills to use and be valued for that effort.
“We make sure people are treated with dignity and respect, not shame and embarrassment,” Palmerlee said.
Reflecting on the past 20 years, Palmerlee said she never would have predicted the path her life would end up taking and she said she’s grateful for the board, employees, volunteers and patrons she’s gotten to work with over the years.
“People don’t come because of the prestige or the money, they come because they are passionate about serving others,” she said. “They care deeply about the people and the other staff. It is truly a sense of community that is unique. I have found it an incredible privilege to work in a nonprofit that is mission-focused.”
Palmerlee isn’t the only one celebrating an anniversary this year; Dégagé is celebrating its 50th anniversary, having opened in 1967.