Dégagé Ministries' Marge Palmerlee on homelessness in GR, the greatness of Heartside & more

Dégagé Ministries Executive Director talks to Rapid Growth about supporting homeless individuals in Grand Rapids, why Heartside is already great, how to bridge the divide that can exist between businesses and social service agencies on South Division, and more.
When Marge Palmerlee began volunteering at Dégagé  Ministries in Grand Rapids' Heartside neighborhood more than two decades ago, she wasn't doing so because she had a background in social work or experience with issues like homelessness. As a single mother raising two sons while working as an accountant at the former Rogers Department Store on 28th Street, she did, however, understand what it meant to face difficulties and to be grateful for a helping hand or a willing ear — and she wanted to give back.

So, she started volunteering at the faith-based nonprofit that works with individuals who are homeless or low-income. When she began, the organization, which was founded in 1967, was headquartered at 10 Weston St. SE and offered just coffee and dinner to the people with whom the group worked. After becoming executive director at Dégagé in 1999, Palmerlee expanded the organization, and, under her leadership, it has grown to employ 17 full-time staff members and have an annual roster of over 1,200 volunteers.

Additionally, under Palmerlee's leadership, the nonprofit moved to its current space at 144 S. Division Ave., where it continues to expand the programs and services it offers, including support with job searches, transportation, funding for prescription co-pays, appointment scheduling, meals, showers, storage space, trips to places like Lake Michigan and Whitecaps games, and an overnight women's shelter. One of the nonprofit's most popular programs is an ID office at which the nonprofit has helped thousands of people receive state IDs and copies of their birth certificates. And, there is a voucher program that allows members of the community-at-large to give money to individuals experiencing homelessness for meals, clothing items, hair cuts, and more.

Recently, we had a chance to speak with Palmerlee about Dégagé, the Heartside neighborhood, homelessness in Grand Rapids, and more.

How long have you been at Dégagé? In that time, how have you see life for Grand Rapids’ homeless population change, and how has Dégagé changed?

I’ve been working at Dégagé for 19 years, and I volunteered here before that.

At Dégagé, we really do a very intentional job of listening to the people we serve. It’s very much grassroots and patron focused. When we opened our second floor, our life enrichment center, we sat down and had numerous focus groups with people in the neighborhood. They said there used to be showers in the neighborhood, but they closed down. So we put in private showers. They said there used to be a laundromat, but now the closest one is on Michigan Street. So, we put in a laundromat. We put in a licensed hair salon. A staff member said she was trying to get people housing and jobs, but people didn't have an ID. So, we started an ID program. Years later, that’s still one of the most vital programs we offer.

We did a survey recently, and people told us they’d like to work on job skills. They said they’d love to connect with Grand Rapids Community College, but don’t feel they fit in there. They said, “Is there anything you can do at Degage?” We toured [GRCC’s] M-TEC Center [which provides workplace training]; they have phenomenal programs that are 80 percent hands-on and in an environment where everyone’s accepted. We’re planning on having a partnership with them.

We have patron advocates people who go out into the community with the people we serve to the bank, to Social Security. Once people move into an apartment, we continue to follow up with them. We have a staff member who checks in with them weekly and monthly. They know we’re there when they need us.

Most of us have extended friends and family we can turn to, whereas, often,  the people we serve don't have that support system. We have staff and volunteers willing to step into that role.

Open Doors Open Heart 2016 - Sam's story from Dégagé Ministries on Vimeo.

There recently has been an outcry against banners that had been emblazoned with the words “Make Heartside great again," which many saw as a denouncement of the people who live and work in the neighborhood, including those who are homeless and the social service agencies. What did you think when you saw those banners?

I found they were coming from someone who’s disconnected and uninformed. I think Heartside is already great, and it’s not not great because it’s home to social service agencies and people who are dealing with homelessness. Just by putting up a high rise apartment that caters to a different clientele will not make Heartside great again. Heartside is great now.

There has been tension between some South Division businesses and the social service agencies, as well as those who are experiencing homelessness. For example, when Propaganda Donuts shuttered their shop on South Division earlier this year, they blamed the closure on their homeless neighbors. What can be done to alleviate this tension?

I think it has to do with getting to know the people in the neighborhood. One summer, I remember there was a small business owner who I met, and I said, "If there’s anything I can do to help, give me a call. If there’s someone in your doorway, give me a call." That first summer, he called me all the time. He had a heart of compassion, but he didn’t know the people. The second summer, the calls dwindled. The third summer, I got a call from him, and he said he didn’t have one problem. I said, “What made the difference?” And he said, “I got to know the people.”

Instead of calling the police, I’d say, “Can I walk you down to Dégagé? Instead of yelling at them, I’d invite them in for a cup of coffee. It develops a different rapport than yelling at them. It just takes time to get to know people. I know there are various meetings that take place with the Heartside Business Association, the Heartside Neighborhood Association and we come together and say, “How can we talk about these issues and address them together, instead of having an us vs. them mentality?"

We opened our women’s center in 2003, and we’ve seen 3,500 individual women there. We served over 53,000 meals in our dining room last year. Obviously there’s a need for that. It’s more than just a meal; for us, it’s a sense of community. It’s bringing people together. Oftentimes, people living in low-income housing on South Division feel isolated, feel cut off. They can come into Dégagé and hang out, have a cup of coffee with their friends in an environment they feel respected.

We do lots of different activities. We got o the zoo, to Whitecaps games. All of those develop that sense of community. That sense of community develops in our dining room, and we foster that with activities that bring people together.

[I would hope that] the business owners and the other people in the neighborhood could see what the social service agencies bring instead of us being a magnet for illegal behavior. Seeing us as a magnet for illegal behavior, I resent that. That shows a lack of understanding.

Dégagé Ministries goes to a Whitecaps game.

Individuals who are homeless will frequently speak of how lonely and isolated they can feel. That people will walk right by them and not acknowledge them. What can be done to bridge the divide between those who are homeless and those who are not?

It takes time. People who work downtown may see the same person day after day. Just introducing yourself and asking their name and remembering it so the next time you can greet them by name makes a difference. It’s so hurtful when someone looks the other way and ignores you. So often I hear people say they feel invisible. It’s the simple act of just saying, “Hi, how are you? Good morning.” If you see the same person over and over, maybe get one of our vouchers [which people can exchange for food, haircuts, clothes, and more] and say, “Would this be helpful?” Or explore what our social service agencies offer in the community.

Tom Gunnel, of Waiting on Division, he’s done a phenomenal job getting to know people, but that takes time. It takes acknowledging the person, acknowledging they have opinions, even just acknowledging their presence.

In Grand Rapids, what are some of the root causes of homelessness, and how can we better address those?

The job market when those lower skill jobs went away, so many of our folks were no longer able to access jobs. Many of them struggle with reading and basic math skills. When higher level skills are required, that’s challenging. That’s why we’re excited to partner with M-TEC. M-TEC requires a GED, and Heartside Ministries has a great GED program. The job market has changed, but the housing market has also changed. It breaks my heart when someone finally gets to the top of the Section 8 housing list, and then they can’t find an apartment they can rent because there’s nothing in that price range. It’s defeating to not be able to find an apartment when you’ve had that hope.

There’s lots of conversations taking place about this in the city. It goes to supply and demand; right now, it’s a very, very tight housing market. There are waiting lists for 140-some families and kids who are sleeping in cars and in motels. It’s heartbreaking to see the need in our community. At Dégagé, single women can stay here, but we don’t have space for women and kids. The need is so great.

"Housing First" [an approach to homelessness that advocates prioritizing long-term housing for individuals who are homeless] is a model our community has embraced, but it’s not the only model I embrace. I know there’s a lot of people who struggle with mental illness, and funding for mental illness has been cut substantially. Mental health is a huge issue, and for many people moving into their own apartment is overwhelming. For a segment of society, you have to address mental health issues before you address moving them into their own apartment. There have to be several different options.

Dégagé has a voucher program as a response to panhandling. How long has this been offered and what prompted it? What kind of change are you hoping stems from it?

When I started at Dégagé, we had the voucher program. People can do work and get a $2 voucher [which they can, in turn, use for meals, haircuts, clothing, and other items]. It makes them feel like they’re not a charity case.

As we saw panhandling laws change, we all saw a real increase in panhandling in our community and we really starting promoting the vouchers. People I come in contact with say, “If I’m not giving money, what do you recommend?” I tell them about the vouchers. On Saturday, I had a woman come in and buy $250 in vouchers; she said, “I appreciate being able to interact with people in a positive way.” It allows people to say, “I care about your needs; here is a voucher to meet your needs.” It has been so well-received.

I certainly do not want to say people who are panhandling are always using money for alcohol and drugs because that’s certainly not the case. But, when you just give someone $2 on a street corner, you don’t have an opportunity to find out what the deeper need is. When they come into Dégagé with the voucher, we can sit down with them and find out what we can help them with. It allows us to develop a relationship.

What else would you want people to know about Dégagé?

We have over 1,200 volunteers and lots and lots of volunteer opportunities. I’d love to have people connect with us. If we could have volunteers who’d go with people to M-TEC, that would be a big help. We’re looking for a group to go apple picking with the women and come back and bake pies with them. We house up to 40 women, and you can come and get to know them and spend an evening here with them. You can do a movie night; pick a movie, watch it with the women and hear from them what they like to do. We have wonderful opportunities. We have some guys who like to take the guys fishing; we have a church group who takes them to the Whitecaps games.

Wintertime is coming. If people have little kids, they can say, “We’ll buy you a pair of gloves, and we’ll buy a pair of gloves for someone who doesn’t have them.” Or foot care is a huge issue. Right now, we need blankets desperately. If people are sleeping outside or in an abandoned building, having a blanket is a huge, huge issue. Or people live in apartments that are drafty. 

For more information about  
Dégagé, you can visit its website or Facebook page. For information about volunteering, please click here.

Anna Gustafson is the managing editor at Rapid Growth. Connect with her via email ([email protected]) and on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram.