There are more homeless teenagers in West Michigan than one might think, but the good news is, they don’t have to be homeless or unemployed any more.
Local nonprofit HQ recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. Its 6,300-square-foot facility is located at 320 State St. SE in Grand Rapids.
HQ serves as a drop-in center for local runaway and/or homeless youth between the ages of 14 and 24 who are experiencing unsafe and unstable housing. The majority of the youth who come in are between 18 and 20 years old.
The 11-person staff, four of whom are full time, offer a “safe and affirming” space for anyone who walks in, said Shandra Steininger, executive director. The youth can get food, take a shower, relax, and talk to staff about helping them connect with organizations that can help them find safe accommodations and work, she said.
In HQ’s first year, it saw more than double the amount of youth than expected.
“We thought if we saw 200 youth in the first year, that would be really incredible and confirm there was a need for something like this. But as of last week, we had 427 members who have come through the door in need of support — in just less than a year,” Steininger said.
“Our current fiscal year, our budget is $340,000. Last year it was quite a bit less, but last year we only thought we were going to serve 200 youth, so we doubled that, doubled our staff team and almost doubled our budget.
“We have a five-year commitment with Mars Hill Bible Church. We have a decreasing grant there. We also received money from private donors and local donations, both private and community.”
HQ was created in December 2014 through Mars Hill in collaboration with Arbor Circle, said Andy Soper, who is both chair of the board for HQ and director of mobilization at Mars Hill.
The idea of having a drop-in center for the area’s homeless youth was born after Mars Hill staff asked Soper what the “next big need in the city” was that the church could address, and Soper saw the homeless youth issue as “one, big gaping hole” that needed to be filled, he said.
The need especially hits home with the LGBTQ community, he said.
“In West Michigan, we should acknowledge this: When we look at this population as a whole, we’re looking at nationwide between 20 to 40 percent are LGBTQ, and just with the youth we’ve had, we’re at 27 percent,” Soper said. “That is disconcerting for us because kids aren’t feeling like they belong with the people who are supposed to take care of them, and they end up on the street or in an unsafe situation. For any sort of healing to take place, youth need to move from unpredictable danger to reliable safety.”
Soper said the issues that create homeless youth in West Michigan range all over the place, although HQ has continually seen one cause surface again and again.
“Family dysfunction is the highest one, and many times it is the parent’s mental abuse or addictions that create problems for the kids,” Soper said. “A lot of times it’s not (the kids’) substance abuse that leads them to street; it’s their parents’ or guardians’ substance abuse or mental health that puts them on the street and makes living at home not tenable.”
Steininger said forming relationships with community partners is a key element to rescuing homeless youth in West Michigan.
“One of the things we’ve learned very strongly is when we have community partners here in the space, youth are more likely to connect with them, and that starts to build the relationships that can go outside of these walls.”
Some of HQ’s most important community partners are employers. And that’s where Samuel Jones, HQ’s youth engagement manager, steps in to help the youth find employment that matches their skill and interests. Jones so far has helped about 10 youth get jobs and has worked with 49 others. He works closely with local business owners who want to hire the youth but aren’t sure what it looks like to hire a non-traditional employee.
It’s a tricky job for Jones, especially since many of the youths don’t have résumés.
“One of the things Sam’s been helping us look at and build is for those youth — who have maybe no work experience or who don’t even know who they would list as an emergency contact — what would it look like for us to have some short-term, paid, ambassador-type internship program here,” Steininger said. “So maybe Sam can work with someone for six weeks and then he can be a positive business reference.”
Jones reiterated the key to finding work for these troubled youth is relationships — not just with them but also with local employers.
“So far, a couple of months into it, it’s been successful. We’ve had reports back from employers who’ve said, ‘You know what? This kid has been a hard worker. They’ve been a great employee for me. What can I do to help and hire more individuals?’”
The most supportive employers Jones has found are in the health, IT, retail and construction industries.
“Construction right now needs people. You talk to the different construction companies of the world right now, there’s a humongous need, and they’re just not finding any skilled or trained workers, and therefore, they’re turning to organizations like us.”
The work HQ and Jones, in particular, are doing to help the troubled youth find employment and security isn’t only a good thing for those individuals; it’s also good for business, Steininger said. Connecting these kids with their community and with jobs is one way to keep local talent in town.
“Just because they’re struggling with housing doesn’t mean they have any less skills or are any less of a hard worker. In fact, I think some of them are incredibly resourceful and hard working,” she said.
“They’re fighters and deserve a chance too.”