Transforming outlooks: Dégagé Ministries’ expansion improves access with dignity

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 700 to 800 people faced homelessness on any given night in Grand Rapids. Data from the Grand Rapids Coalition to End Homelessness showed that in a single year, 3,500 individuals in Grand Rapids were either unhoused or at imminent risk of becoming unhoused.

On a daily basis, as many as 500 people come through Dégagé Ministries' doors to receive assistance. Today, those looking for help do not have to sacrifice their dignity to find it.

As part of an expansion project that's been in the works since 2020, Dégagé’s main entrance has been moved from Division Avenue to Sheldon Boulevard, which allows for "a much more private entrance for patrons that come to Dégagé, moves them off of Division, where people are often gawking at them driving by," says Thelma Ensink, Dégagé's executive director.

This move will also improve access to local businesses by reducing loitering along the Division Avenue sidewalk.

"That's going to have a big impact for the community," Ensink says.

Dégagé is open to patrons Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Thursday evenings from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. During those hours, more meals can be served with an expanded dining room area and more wellness activities can be hosted in their new community center. Esink says plans are also in progress to expand Dégagé’s workforce development program and add more beds to its women’s overnight shelter program.

This expansion began in 2020 under the leadership of longtime Executive Director Marge Palmerlee, who retired in December 2020. Ensink, Palmerlee’s successor, says she is eager to see the new facilities in use, providing rest, nourishment, support and guidance to those who need it most.

The most visible features of this multi-year expansion are the new community center and dining room, but the most valuable are the additional services being provided to the community, which were added after "having listened to our community over the last few years, in terms of what they need," Ensink says.

“Our new community center and dining room, as well as the future new offerings in this expanded space, will truly help us support people on their journey toward wholeness and provide a place to build lasting relationships," Ensink says.

Dégagé’s wellness and rest centers will open later this fall, giving individuals who are experiencing homelessness a safe clean environment to use during the day, while they continue with their follow-up care.

Thrift on Div, a thrift and artisan market located at 140 Division Ave. S, provides employment to participants of Dégagé’s workforce development program, which currently employs about 15. Ensink says the goal is to one day employ 20 to 40 individuals in the workforce development program, connecting them to area employment partners and classes where they can learn or improve work skills, life skills, financial literacy and more.

One of the next ventures for Dégagé will help patrons secure stable housing, moving on to the next stage in their lives. The organization has acquired four properties on the north side of Grand Rapids and is in the process of purchasing and eventually renovating those homes.

Dégagé provides emergency shelter to between 60 to 70 women each year and this direct housing program will make it easier to connect patrons to transitional housing.

"As people move through our emergency shelter into our program and become ready to be rehoused, there aren't always units available," Ensink says. "We want to be able to be a direct provider of that housing and help people take that next step."

Paul's Mom's Cookies, Dégagé’s social enterprise cookie business, is getting a new name and a new space. The Open Door Bakery will be open to customers from Dégagé’s previous Division Avenue entrance in the fall.

Ensink says it was clear from the beginning that this entire project would improve the lives of Dégagé’s patrons with a "beautiful and dignified new space," she says, but the true impact is seen in the people who find respite there.

"Seeing the reaction from our patrons in those spaces and seeing how that transforms their outlook, their strive to move forward, as well as the atmosphere within the community center — that impact has been bigger than I thought it would be," Ensink says.

Photos courtesy of Dégagé Ministries' Facebook page
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