Nonprofits step in to help homeless youth with health care


Five nonprofit organizations have collaborated to provide wraparound health and wellness services for homeless youth.

The Comprehensive Health Initiative is providing services to 400 youth, giving them connections to health care insurance, primary care providers, wellness coping strategies and crisis support therapy.

The services are being provided at the nonprofit HQ, a drop-in center for teens and young adults experiencing unsafe or unstable housing or homelessness, and 3:11 Youth Housing, which provides housing to youth experiencing homelessness.

Providers working with the nonprofits are Grand Valley State University's Family Health Center, operated by the Kirkhof College of Nursing; the Wisdom Center, which provides counseling services; and Health Net of West Michigan, which provides health system navigation services and coordination with primary care providers.

The goal is to significantly interrupt a cycle of homelessness by intervening early and establishing trust in a safe and affirming environment, said Shandra Steininger, co-founder and executive director of HQ, which is leading the initiative.

Mark Contreras, a nurse practitioner at GVSU Family Health Center, said the effort brings holistic services on-site to youth in a “one-stop shop” where they feel comfortable going.

“We want it to be different from their previous experiences with health care, which likely has only been in an emergency room,” Contreras said.

Steininger said the project came about, because at the end of 2018, HQ’s mental health community partner lost funding and could not continue providing support, consistent with the decreased mental health funding trend across many communities.

“We saw that and felt that right away,” she said.

And clients of 3:11 were having difficulty maintaining housing and employment because of physical and mental health challenges. Steininger and Lauren VanKeulen, co-executive director of 3:11, began exploring what they could do to help.

Steininger said navigating services is especially difficult for the 18-24 age range that this collaboration and many nonprofits serve.

“You're magically an adult and are supposed to just know how to navigate services and programs, but if that's never been modeled for you, it can be really intimidating and overwhelming, especially if you don't even know where you're going to sleep tonight,” Steininger said.

Because of this, many youths don’t have Medicaid or might not be taking their medications consistently.

“We have to look at those things if we're really going to break the cycle of homelessness and help youth move into stability,” Steininger said.

To keep HQ focused on its own services and not replicate other services, it looked into how organizations could collaborate.

The Comprehensive Health Initiative received more than $400,000 over three years from the Steelcase Foundation, Michigan Health Endowment Fund, Herman Miller Cares, Frey Foundation and Mars Hill Bible Church.

Funds mostly are paying for contracts, as well as for two youth advocate positions, who will help the clients manage all the new relationships they are making.

Through the program, GVSU, which is providing the services for free, will send nurse practitioners to HQ for six hours per week. Health Net will help youths sign up for Medicaid, dental, food and other benefits. Wisdom Center will have professionals on-site who can provide crisis counseling if needed and traditional therapy.

“These grant dollars are providing for that type of flexibility and relationship building so that youths are more likely to engage in mental health services,” Steininger said. “That is how you mitigate the gaps in services.”

She said the goal is the youth will be able to continue accessing services even after no longer visiting the nonprofits.

“We're trying to figure out a long-term strategy here,” she said.

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