A seminar on social justice at Calvin College by author Richard Foster inspired Marge Palmerlee to become involved in a homeless ministry. Photo by Jim Gebben
“I just want you to know that I’m going to commit suicide tonight.”
The homeless man’s words got Marge Palmerlee’s attention. It was a Sunday night and the executive director of Dégagé Ministries wanted nothing more than to go home and rest after a long week of ministering to Heartside’s neediest residents.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” he told Palmerlee. “You’re really the only person who knows me by name.”
“I’m not the only person that cares about you,” she responded. “Jesus loves you. … Will you allow me to get you help at Saint Mary’s?”
“If you’ll go with me,” he said. She did and saved his life.
Palmerlee’s 20 years at Dégagé are filled with such stories. When she first began volunteering at the faith-based, homeless-centered nonprofit in the early 1990s, it was located at 10 Weston St. SE and only served coffee and dinner. Now, under her leadership, it has moved into 144 S. Division Ave., has 30 full-time staff, 1,200 volunteers, an income of more than $1 million, and has grown to offer so many services to the community that it looks like a different nonprofit altogether.
When Dégagé, which focuses on serving the Heartside neighborhood, was created in 1967, it was sort of a response to the fallout from a shift in the main thoroughfare in and out of downtown Grand Rapids, Palmerlee said. When U.S. 131 replaced Division Avenue as the main “gateway” to downtown, it damaged South Division’s neighborhoods, she said.
“That’s when (Heartside) really started to deteriorate. … People were no longer using it as a way to get downtown, so then it just turned into Skid Row,” she said. “I used to drive around Division. I would never have seen myself (volunteering) in that environment — not in a million years.”
Palmerlee admits that, back then, she was an unlikely candidate to work such a change in both Dégagé and Heartside. At the time, she was a single mom raising two sons on her own and working full time as an accountant at the former Rogers Department Store on 28thStreet SW. She had no degree in social work or any experience with substance abuse, mental illness or homelessness, she said.
What she did have was a supportive church family at First Evangelical Covenant Church, and an empathetic heart that understood what it felt like to be on the receiving end of grace.
Looking back, she realizes her own difficult situation and the help she received made it easier for her to step into the role of helping others in similar circumstances.
“It was because of what I went through and because I was searching, saying, ‘OK, God, I’ve been so blessed,’” she said. “I had a church family who surrounded me as I walked through my divorce and I wanted to give back.”
Her breakthrough moment came when she attended a seminar at Calvin College. Richard Foster, author of “Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth,” spoke on social justice. His words marked the moment in Palmerlee’s life when she said she began to feel God calling her to be involved in homeless ministry.
At the time, it was a choice she questioned, she said, but one she’s since never doubted was the right thing to do.
“It didn’t make sense on paper to leave a stable job that I’d been at for 24 years and I loved. I took a large pay cut to do it,” she said. “I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ A lot of people said, ‘What are you doing?’ But look now: Rogers Department Store has been closed for years and the nonprofit is still here.”
While searching for a ministry with which to become involved, she heard of Dégagé because some of the young people from her church volunteered there. She went, bringing along her son Luke, who was 12. The impact the experience had on both of them was profound.
“We both started volunteering there and volunteered for a number of years,” Palmerlee said. “My son eventually went on to full-time ministry (focusing on social justice in Chicago), and I became executive director. Who could have ever guessed the path that God had?”
After volunteering for about four years, Palmerlee came on staff as ministry coordinator. A year and a half later, she was named executive director. One of the first things she did was sit down with key volunteers and the homeless people they were serving, and ask how Dégagé could do more to impact the community.
Those focus groups became a key factor in Dégagé’s ability to help, she said.
“We asked, ‘What’s missing in your life that would make your life easier?’ And they said, ‘Well, there used to be a laundromat that closed, and now we have to put our clothes in a garbage bag, take a bus and go down Michigan Street.’ So we put in a laundromat,” she said.
“Then they said, ‘Well, we don’t have any place to afford a cheap haircut.’ So we put in a hair salon. Then they said, ‘There used to be showers in the neighborhood and those closed.’ So we put in showers.”
Dégagé wants to be generous, but it does not give free handouts, Palmerlee said, not wanting to enable people to continue unhealthy addictions. Those who want the services need to earn them on Dégagé’s job board, and receive vouchers for doing smaller jobs like sweeping the center’s floor or taking out the trash. This not only enforces a principle, she said, but give’s people a sense of dignity.
Unfortunately, in the wake of the Great Recession, Dégagé has been as busy as it’s ever been, she said.
“There are people that were able to get low-skilled jobs easier, but those jobs have disappeared,” she said. “We’re seeing people who previously could have been self-sustaining, but their company was downsized. Now, getting or keeping a job is very challenging. They’re usually the last hired and the first laid off, so that impacts your ability to have sustainable housing.”
This winter has been especially cruel to the homeless, Palmerlee said. Some days, Dégagé has been standing-room only just so people can get out of the bitter cold. Mobility has been difficult, especially for those in wheelchairs, she said. For the homeless who have no way to get their clothes dry, serious illnesses have resulted.
“We’ve had people that have had frostbite where they had to have part of their feet (amputated),” she said. “Another woman fell and broke her arm … and another slipped and twisted her ankle. Can you imagine trying to get around in this weather on crutches?”
One of the things Palmerlee said continually surprises her about working with the homeless is their gratitude. What they need is someone willing to walk with them and believe in them, she said.
When asked if she had seen miracles on the streets, Palmerlee laughed, but then suddenly became very emotional. Tears welled up in her eyes and her voice trembled as she offered one last thought on what it means to do the work she feels called to.
“I don’t see miracles of people getting healed or no longer needing their medicine. To me the miracles are God showing up every day and that He works through me to impact lives — that I have that privilege of walking alongside these folks and how they trust me,” she said. “And to me, that’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.”