Covenant House Michigan, Grand Rapids campus (CHMGR) is in the final stages of constructing a $3.5 million three-story building at 26 Antoine St. SW, near the intersection of S. Division Avenue and Franklin Street. It is slated to open in late November, and will have a staff of 20 with an annual operating budget of just under $1 million.
It's the second Covenant House in Michigan; the first is in Detroit, established 20 years ago.
What CHMGR will provide
Thankfully, most young people have a safe place to sleep. That's not always the case for runaways and the homeless.
CHMGR will offer that to its young residents and more. It'll be a place for them to feel safe and an opportunity to experience love and hope, while securing a foundation for a fruitful future through the services it offers.
CHMGR's services are focused on education, health, employment and life skills training while housing 28 youth, 14 male and 14 female. And because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning youth are at much greater risk of becoming homeless than their non-LGBTQ counterparts — 120 percent higher, according to a 2017 Voices of Youth Count, Chapin Hall, University of Chicago study — CHMGR will welcome them as well.
A conspicuous feature of the 17,000-square foot building is its abundance of windows that engenders an open ambiance, with sunlight pouring inside.
"The important thing is its (the building's) transparency," said Pam Spaeth, chief operating officer of CHMGR. "Many young people are living in unsafe conditions. It's very dark and some are being held behind walls. Any one person can say, 'I can see what's going on here.' It's open and transparent and that is very intentional."
Filling a gap
While the Grand Rapids area has drop-in centers and temporary shelters for youth, CHMGR fills a gap. Even so, it intends to partner with other nonprofits that assist homeless and at-risk youth, including Mel Trotter, Degage, HQ, Harbor Circle and network180.
Another reason for opening CHMGR is it's adjacent to its Covenant House Academy Grand Rapids that opened in 2013. The academy gives drop outs, runaways, homeless and at-risk youth the opportunity to earn a diploma, improve their life skills and acquire the academic foundation for higher education.
"What we found from the academy was about 20 percent (out of 350 students) at any given time are homeless," said Spaeth. "That's 60 to 70 students who are homeless. So between HQ, Harbor Circle, the Youth Emergency Services, Kent ISD, all the homeless liaisons of the school districts, our referral network is very robust.
"Our community partners such as Mel Trotter, Degage, HQ, Harbor Circle, Network180 punctuated (the need for CHMGR) with a 'yes!'" added Spaeth. "'We never heard of your program; please come.' That's the reason we're here. It began five years ago with our education program and then the realization that the major program, the core of what we do, needed to be here."
A sobering truth is many young people are vulnerable to labor and sex trafficking.
"Our philosophy is you're one decision away," said Spaeth. "You make that one wrong decision to trust an individual and you can be pulled into trafficking within minutes. Grand Rapids is not immune by any means."
Covenant House's history
Covenant House is an international federation with more than 40 years experience supporting youth on their successful journey to adulthood. It is the largest privately funded agency in the Americas providing shelter, food, immediate crisis care, and an array of other services to homeless and runaway youth.
Although Father Bruce Ritter, a Franciscan priest, founded Covenant House in 1972, its ties to Catholicism have been broadened, according to Spaeth.
"We're no longer are a direct outshoot of the Catholic Church but what has been retained is our mission to serve youth's basic needs in the love of Christ," said Spaeth.
CHMGR intends to "come alongside" young people to provide education, which may include vocational training rather than college; physical and mental health services; life skills including financial literacy and anger management; employment assistance; and permanent housing.
"We help youth transition from youth to adulthood so they can be self sufficient and successful," said Spaeth. "The thing with Covenant House is their relationship with us doesn't end when they leave the building or leave the program. We continue to walk alongside them to be sure they keep their apartment, they keep their job, and that they will have support to continue to be sure that the success ratio is there."