Grand Rapids HQ provides support, services for homeless and at-risk youth

Grand Rapids HQ is a drop-in center for homeless and at-risk youth that opened its doors at the end of 2014.

It doesn’t have beds, but staff there can help the homeless aged 14-24 get beds at other support facilities around town, including 3:11 Youth Housing, one of its partners in a new, three-year initiative called the Comprehensive Health Initiative. When HQ opened, there was just one facility with two beds for homeless youth. Today, thanks in part to HQ’s fundraising and partnerships, there are a total of 50 beds at various facilities around town, including the Bridge of Arbor Circle and Covenant House.

HQ offers a range of other services, including GED training, teaching job skills, helping with document recovery for those in need of Social Security cards or birth certificates, providing nurse practitioners and dentists, free use of washing machines and dryers, a bank of computers with email and internet access, a big flat-screen TV for watching streaming services and cable TV, hot meals, lockers where things can be safely stored 24/7, a small library, showers and complimentary toiletries such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo and prophylactics.

The nurse practitioners treat minor injuries or illnesses, administer flu shots and other vaccines and do pregnancy testing and testing for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, all at no cost.

Church leaders knew there was a need to support homeless and at-risk youth in the area, and they knew that the fewer strings that were attached to the support, the more people it would be able to reach. HQ was designed to be fully independent of the church and not one of its ministries.

HQ requires those who attend to register and become members, at no cost, but there are no other requirements. Those dropping in don’t have to be Christian, there is no proselytizing on the premises, they don’t have to promise to get off alcohol or drugs if they have substance abuse problems — they just need to be polite when they are there. The LGBTQ community is welcome.

“The church realized it had been part of the problem with LGBTQ youth, many of whom get kicked out of the house when they come out to their parents,” said Shandra Steininger, the co-founder and executive director. “A drop-in center needs to be low barrier to be effective. We wanted to be as welcoming as we could. The mission was to create a safe and welcoming space. Forty to 50 percent of homeless adults were homeless as kids, and our hope is to help break that cycle of homelessness.”

“The cool story is that a large, local, evangelical church provided the seed funding … what’s even more amazing is that they didn’t insist that HQ be run as a ministry or even as a faith organization,” said Carl Erickson, who has been the nonpaid chairman of HQ for three and a half years.

Erickson is a member of the Grand Angels investor group and the founder of Atomic Object, a highly successful web and app developer in Grand Rapids that has another office in Ann Arbor.

Mars Hill’s donation allowed HQ to buy its building on State Street, just east of downtown Grand Rapids, in June 2014. “In effect, that was an endowment for us in that we don’t have to pay rent,” he said.

Steininger knows just how important a helping hand, some kind words, and a place to go where you’re cared for can be. She was once an at-risk young person herself, living in poverty in a small town in the middle of the cornfields of rural Indiana, a victim of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, and with few aspirations.

“The expectations in my world were that maybe, eventually you could move out of the trailer park and into renting a house,” she said. “I had a rough childhood, but a person came into my life at a critical time and changed my view of the world. I know the impact a person can have on your life.”

That person was named Audrey, a grown woman Steininger met when she was 16. “I started babysitting for her, and we became friends. She would call me up and say she was thinking about me. It was nothing big or glamorous, it was just someone who cared about me and saw something in me. She was a mentor and a mother figure. She had a very positive influence that energized me to think beyond the limited dreams of my small town.”

Audrey convinced her to break out of her family cycle, to become the first person in her family ever to go to college, and she helped Steininger move to Grand Rapids when she started at Calvin College. Audrey died in a car accident during Steininger’s sophomore year in college, a tragedy that motivated her to prove that Audrey was right in seeing something in her.

After graduating from Calvin College, Steininger got her master’s in social work from Michigan State University and moved back to Grand Rapids.

HQ has grown to a staff of 15 and has an annual budget of $500,000. In the last three months of 2019, HQ served 214 different members, 410 for the year and more than 1,300 since it opened its doors. Those 410 members paid more than 8,000 visits to the center in 2019.

In a city that is perceived by some as being an enclave of conservative whites, only 30 percent of those dropping in last year were white; 42 percent were black, 13 percent were multiracial, nine percent were Hispanic and 0.6 percent were Asian. Not all visitors identified themselves by race.

Last fall, HQ and its partners began the three-year Comprehensive Health Initiative, focusing on health care access for at-risk and homeless youth, healing therapies and wellness programs. Other partners besides 3:11 Youth Housing in providing services to youth and young adults were Health Net of West Michigan, a nonprofit helping provide access to health care; Wisdom Center Counseling LLC; and the Grand Valley State University College of Nursing.

Steininger said the program raised $400,000 to launch from a variety of local sources, including Mars Hill Bible Church, Herman Miller Cares, the Steelcase Foundation, the Frey Foundation and the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Mark Contreras is a nurse practitioner and affiliate clinical faculty at Grand Valley State University. He and a colleague, Jaime Hendricks, began taking turns at HQ last fall as part of the Community Health Initiative.

One of them is at HQ each Tuesday and Thursday at a small nursing office, where they treat members for minor illnesses and injuries. If they have more serious problems, they refer them to GVSU’s Family Health Center downtown, a nurse-run facility where care is provided to HQ members at no charge.

“The first time we went to HQ last October, right off the get-go you could tell this was an organization that understands the needs of its clients and how to meet them. They are truly in the trenches,” said Contreras. “This is an initiative that has gone tremendously well.”