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UIX: HQ lights a path for homeless youth

Shandra Steininger, Samuel Jones, Amy Hinman

Invisible to many in West Michigan, an average of 200 youth go without a place to sleep each night in our community. They've escaped violence, rejection and neglect. They've been through a lot, and a life on the street can be even worse. For all those who have no place to call home, HQ Runaway & Homeless Youth Drop-In Center offers a safe and caring destination. 
For all we have to be proud of in Grand Rapids, there is so much more that isn't seen.
Invisible to many in West Michigan, an average of 200 youth go without a place to sleep every night. They've escaped violence, rejection and neglect, each with a unique set of circumstances. They've been through a lot, and a life on the street can be even worse.
For all those who have run away, HQ Runaway & Homeless Youth Drop-In Center offers a safe and caring destination. HQ
is not a shelter. It's the first drop-in center in the area and includes no residential or overnight component. Different age groups of runaway youth are welcome to take advantage of HQ facilities at different times of the day, to make the most of what the center has to offer. Visitors can find a safe place to clean up and rest, they can connect with case management workers, counselors, or other resourceful professionals, and they can participate in educational and employment training programs. 
"Our goal is to be a reaffirming base, so anyone 14 to 24 who is experiencing unstable housing can really find a sense of belonging and know there are people who truly care about them and believe about them," says HQ Executive Director Shandra Steininger. "We believe that starting there with a relationship and a sense of safety creates a springboard to success better than any other introduction."
Early Days
HQ began with seed money from Mars Hill Bible Church and the direction of Andy Soper, who was taking on the role of Director of Mobilization at the church after a decade of work with Wedgwood and starting the Manasseh Project. Mars Hill was looking for a new project to support, and Steininger was eager to help it along.
Shandra Steininger"In those early days it was Andy and I working together quite a bit. We did a ton of research, talked to so many youth, and dreamed with so many community partners. We thought we knew pretty well what this was going to look like and what we would need," Steininger says. "I think we did the best we could. Looking back, man, we had a lot to learn."
HQ is in its second year of operation and, along with Arbor Circle, is one of the few resources homeless youth have. But that scarcity not only made HQ a popular spot from the day its doors opened in December 2014, it also gave the staff a quick lesson in the complexity and scope of the area's homeless issues. Steininger says both the sheer number of youth and the variety of backgrounds they encountered were well beyond what HQ expected. 
"I remember having been opened just six weeks.There were 31 young people there and that number happened so much more quickly than we expected," she says. "We broke it down into age ranges and started working with the younger youths on different drop-in times and slightly different ways than our older members. The pace has been pretty intense."
It's a pace HQ has been proud of taking on, too. Samuel Jones, HQ Education and Employment Manager, says it's empowering to see the 11 staff, countless volunteers, and community partners invest their lives in the same work.
"While it has not always been easy, I think our members would say it's been worth it," Jones says. "The biggest part of being in an organization that cares so much and deeply about this work is knowing how to adapt;  everyone's voice counts here, and we do our best to make adjustments based on that."
Samuel JonesFrom Jones' perspective, some of the biggest barriers homeless youth face are in the way of stable employment and education. He previously worked as a youth advocate for Grand Rapids Public Schools and says creative opportunities like those offered at HQ can ready youth to overcome those barriers. He reaches out to different jobs and schools, personally advocating for HQ members, and the work pays off. HQ members can also find innovative employability skills classes and youth employment opportunities at the center, all part of a push to ready visitors for future success.
"We are proud to say some of these organizations have taken on the charge to employ or enroll members like ours to give them positive work and school opportunities," Jones says. "When I became apart of this organization I took the charge personally as this is one of my passion areas. Along with this, we have become more trauma-informed, data oriented, and have plans to better explore greater engagement outside our normal drop in hours for our members."
The stories that bring people to HQ are complex, Steininger says, but they are all linked by a tempered resiliency.
Development and Communications Manager Amy Hinman says the organization not only understands this link, but uses it to communicate positive messages.
Amy Hinman"We're very intentional about using person-centered language ("youth experiencing homelessness" vs. "homeless youth") because it's just so much more empowering for members, and a lot of our printed materials were created before we even had youth to talk to about them," Hinman says. "I worked with a few members, and eventually one really closely, to help create empowering content for what we publish. Not only does our language consider and respect youths' experiences more, but it helps youth invest in HQ and its mission in a really beautiful way."
Body language is another important form of communication. Within a dark and shielded demeanor may lie a different story altogether. By providing a judgment-free sense of place, Hinman says, HQ brings that story out.
"I am so proud of how at home members feel here," she says. "You can just see a difference in their whole being when they walk through the doors–heads go up; shoulders are straight. They know they belong as they are, no matter what. That we're a space that celebrates who they are, rather than shames. We're able to have honest, vulnerable conversations, conversations that wouldn't happen elsewhere. It's amazing."
Steininger credits her staff for being dedicated and passionate in a somewhat thankless field. The success of HQ is because of their diligent work.
"So rarely do you get to see the fruit of the seeds you are planting," she says. "They work with so many youths, and many of those kids move on to the next stage. We don't necessarily get to see the positive success stories all the time. There are two incredible teams and it's been an honor to work with that group."
More than 550 individuals have gotten help at HQ since it opened, and there's no denying the center will see many more. It's an unfortunate fact, but one that the center is playing a crucial role in setting right. 
"We talk a lot about the goal of ending youth homelessness, and that's a big thing to say," Steininger says. "Youth become homeless for many reasons, some of which started generations ago. Our real goal is to break that cycle so they can leave an unsafe situation as quickly as possible and be less likely to be homeless later on in life."
While the idea of 200 homeless children in Grand Rapids is hard for many to imagine, Steininger says, the community has been very supportive of HQ's efforts, no matter their scope.
"It's been an honor to work in this community. Even when people aren't able to understand or wrap their minds around how many homeless youths there are in the area, they still care a whole lot," Steininger says. "HQ is the culmination of so many people saying, 'This is unacceptable in my community. What can I do?'"
And people can help. The center relies on an invaluable volunteer base.
"It might be as much as coming once a week to clean a toilet. That creates a welcome space for young people," Steininger says. "It might mean giving financially. It might mean running a huge chapstick drive. It really looks like a lot of different things but it's so inspiring to see people care so much about something that is really pretty hidden."
Steininger says many may yet see this population of youths without stable housing through a subjective lens. But as she and the HQ staff have learned from the hundreds of members that have to the center since 2014, there are a lot of facets to that gem.
"It's been so inspiring to be around some of these youth and hear their stories, and wrap our minds around the series of events that led them to a place like HQ," she says. "So many of them are still positive and creative and motivated. Sometimes the general community doesn't always get to know that side. They see the rough and protected exterior, but they don't always get to know the heart of these youth. My hope is that HQ can be a catalyst to change some of those perceptions."
For more information on HQ runaway & Homeless Youth Drop-In Center, visit http://hqgr.org/
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.

Photography by 
Steph Harding
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