The Open Door program launched with 10 beds but has expanded to offer sleeping quarters to 40 women. Courtesy Dégagé Ministries
On any given night, 40 women spread mattresses across the second and third floors of Dégagé Ministries, their minimal possessions tucked into lockers along the walls for safekeeping.
Marge Palmerlee, executive director of Dégagé, said since opening its Open Door Women’s Center in 2003, over 3,600 individual women have spent at least a single night there, while the average stay is 132 nights.
The Open Door program launched with 10 beds and only operated on the weekends, but Dégagé quickly realized there were far more women in need of a safe place to sleep, and the program was expanded to 40 beds and now operates nightly.
Palmerlee said while the women come from all walks of life — often escaping domestic violence situations or dealing with substance abuse — she is seeing more young women than she used to coming to the shelter for help.
“We take women 18 and older, and we are seeing younger and younger adults coming who are first time homeless and who have been kicked out and have no place to go,” she said.
But, she noted, anyone could become homeless.
“One woman was going to college, and her landlord wasn’t making payments and she became homeless,” Palmerlee said. “So, you have a college student sleeping beside someone who’s been homeless for several years.”
Palmerlee said women who are part of the Open Door program don’t just receive a place to stay; they receive a number of services aimed at helping them move out of homelessness and into secure housing.
Each week, the women are expected to meet with Dégagé’s patron advocate to talk about their long-term goals and the steps they are taking to achieve those goals.
They are also required to participate in life-enhancing activities at least three times per week, such as volunteering or taking classes at the Recovery Academy, which could include classes in anger management or financial management.
Palmerlee said the women often have other appointments during the daytime with doctors, or landlords about potential housing.
They also can perform tasks at the shelter and earn money for their work, which they can use for a variety of services provided there, including laundry and weekly locker rentals.
A few of the women have jobs in the community.
Palmerlee said of the 40 women currently at the shelter, seven of them are employed.
Women who are employed are required to save some of their paychecks so they can build up enough savings to help them move into housing later. In partnership with a local church, Dégagé also offers a Safe Keeping program, which is a savings program with a 50-cent match for every dollar saved.
Palmerlee said some women leave the shelter and go into a transitional housing.
“To be in transitional housing, they have to prove they’re trustworthy and are working on their goals and not having been suspended for bad behavior. They have to be ready for the next step,” she said.
She said some women might receive Section 8 housing vouchers to help them afford rent once they are ready to move on from transitional housing, but she said the waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers has increased.
She also said the overall lack of affordable housing in Grand Rapids is having an impact on the women’s abilities to find housing, even with the Section 8 vouchers.
Section 8 vouchers make market rate housing affordable, because households pay 30 percent of their income for housing.
“The affordable housing issue has magnified itself in the last couple of years,” Palmerlee said. “There isn’t enough affordable housing. It’s so challenging to have the Section 8 voucher and not be able to find a place to live. Rents are going up, and it rules out options.”
Hattie Tinney, deputy executive director for the Grand Rapids Housing Commission, said need always has outpaced demand for Section 8 vouchers.
She said the Grand Rapids Housing Commission (GRHC) has approximately 3,300 vouchers available to serve the area, with additional vouchers available to the community through other local housing commissions and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. She said the number of vouchers remains mostly static from year to year, however.
“Vouchers become available to people on the waiting list as households leave the program,” Tinney said. “For the GRHC, 25 to 30 vouchers are made available monthly to households on our waiting list.
“Our last waiting list was opened in 2014, at which time we received approximately 9,000 applications. From the 9,000 applicants, we drew — through a lottery process — 5,000 applications to form our waiting list.”
She said the current list will last approximately three years.
As a result, Tinney said many people in need of housing turn to other programs for rent assistance, such as low-income public housing, low-income housing tax credit housing and Permanent Supportive Housing, among others.
“In the Grand Rapids area, the rental market is nearly saturated and maintaining a very high occupancy rate — one of the highest in the country,” Tinney said. “Because of high utilization, there are a very limited number of vacant units for those looking, both those with or without vouchers.”
Tinney said efforts are being made to develop a network of services and temporary and permanent housing by several organizations in the community.
As the need for housing continues to outpace availability, Dégagé’s Open Door program is striving to help the women who call it home attain the life skills and financial foundations to leave homelessness and, hopefully, never return, Palmerlee said.
Dégagé will be hosting an event March 16 at New Vintage Place, 889 Broadway Ave. NW, in support of the Open Door Women’s Center.