Published Together: Nonprofits create a welcoming, positive space for our unhoused youth

Over the summer, we invited Mary DeYoung to join Rapid Growth on “The WGVU Morning Show with Shelley Irwin” to share insights from her position as a house mentor at our local youth unhoused drop-in center, A.Y.A. (As You Are).

And, while you can listen to our summer interview archived here, moving into fall — a season that always signals much colder days are approaching — Published Together wanted to check in with A.Y.A.’s CEO Lauren VanKeulen and hear more about this growing organization’s mission to create lasting impact for good in the lives of our unhoused youth. 

I think you will be as moved as we were by their story where we can all play a part in moving forward. 

Tommy Allen
Tommy Allen (TA): Before we get into the role of A.Y.A., I think we should define what A.Y.A.’s origin story is as well as some statistics we should be concerned with. 

Lauren VanKeulen (LVK): A.Y.A. Youth Collective is the culmination of a merger between two of the largest Grand Rapids organizations serving unsafe/unstably housed or literally homeless youth, ages 14-24 — 3:11 Youth Housing and HQ. Our mission is to create communities, rooted in belonging, for youth experiencing instability to own their future. 
We know that youth are a unique population, experiencing homelessness at a higher rate than any other group, while at a higher overall risk because of their developmental stage in life. Furthermore, youth who access drop-in centers are at an even higher risk than their shelter-seeking counterparts and are highly susceptible to violence, substance dependence, exploitation and mental health issues. 

A.Y.A., by providing a streamlined, one-stop shop for youth to engage in services and be connected to housing resources, is crucial in changing the trajectory of their lives. Recent studies have shown that 19% of individuals who exited homelessness and moved into permanent housing returned to homelessness within two years! Therefore, housing on its own is not sufficient to transition youth out of homelessness for the long run, but rather, housing within a supportive environment with community partners and case management … this results in better community integration, quality of life and mental health.

TA: Combining two nonprofits (3:11 Youth Housing and HQ) seems like a rarity here in West Michigan. Why did you merge together?

LVK: Two years ago, when we first considered the idea of a merged organization, we began to see and feel the great potential of our collective efforts, many of which have successfully played out since then. 

Our vision statements for both organizations boldly aspired to dissolve the inequities youth experience. Breaking the cycle of homelessness requires so much more than either organizations’ individual capacity. It is through self-assessment, and years of collective work, that leaders from both HQ and 3:11 solidified their belief that a merger [was] in the best interest of the youth in our community. As we aim to help youth feel the belonging we all need, we knew that we would be stronger as a collective “us.”

TA: Too often we hear folks blindly using well-worn buzzwords and yet we can forget in the use of such language that we might need a moment to pause with it so that we can better understand its intense meaning. So, when you say "belonging," how do you define it within your organization?

LVK: It's the framework our organization employs as its one primary philosophy — bridging and belonging. This framework comes from the “Othering and Belonging”, and “Bridging vs. Breaking” work of John A. Powell and the Haas Institute. The Institute gives us the following guiding language — “Breaking can create a deep fear of other groups, making it easier to accept false stories of ‘us vs. them.’ Breaking perpetuates isolation, hardens racism, and builds oppressive systems — while driving our politics and institutions toward anti-democratic and inhumane practices. The other response is bridging, which calls on us to imagine a larger, more inclusive ‘we.’”

TA: Any favorite quotes from the framework that stands out to you as well as any local stats that support the need or urgency for this approach to your work?

LVK: “Bridging calls on us to engage in healthy dialogue and requires us to listen deeply. Bridging does not mean abandoning your identity. Bridging means acknowledging our shared humanity, rejecting that there is a ‘them,’ and moving toward a future where there is instead a new ‘us.’” (Source: Haas Institute, 2019)

It is unacceptable that 1 in 7 Black children experience homelessness in Kent County while only 1 out of 160 white children do (Source: KConnect). 

In the United States, people of color have seen a significant decrease in their cumulative wealth. From 1983-2013, Black wealth decreased from $6,800 to $1,700 – a 75% decrease. From 2013 to 2020, Black wealth decreased another 18% and by 2053, it is projected to be $0 (Dwight Hopkins). 

Given the severity of this problem, not only locally but across the county, A.Y.A. has intentionally integrated racial equity practices into every aspect of the organization and specifically targets its resources to address the root causes — racism and racial inequity. 
Courtesy of Lauren VanKeulen
TA: How do the services at A.Y.A. make a difference or stand out?

LVK: It's first important to recognize that A.Y.A. serves approximately 400 unique youth each year who are facing unsafe/unstable housing or literal homelessness. Data from A.Y.A.’s drop-in center shows an approximate 30% of youth identify as LGBTQ+ upon their first visit compared to 6% of the national population. Furthermore, 55% identify as male, 43% as female, and 2% as non-binary/trans. A shocking 78% of youth served are people of color, although, according to 2010 Census Data, people of color make up only 41% of the general Grand Rapids population. Additionally, it’s been widely proven that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted these same communities, further compounding the disparities and challenges collectively faced.

TA: So, how does A.Y.A. address these facts and yet, as big as these challenges may seem, move the needle forward?

LVK: It’s critical that youth have opportunities to build healthy relationships with successful people who look like them and have been through similar challenges. A.Y.A.’s staff demographics and life experiences represent the youth served, allowing them to support a philosophy of ongoing quality improvement while challenging inequities and systemic barriers. Through the founding of both HQ and 3:11 and especially within the context of the recent merger, many youth were engaged at various levels and via diverse methodologies. People with lived experience, specifically alumni of the program, have been hired into paid staff roles and two currently sit on the board of directors. 

TA: … and to the youth’s needs. How are they served by the center?

LVK: The drop-in center allows youth to meet their most basic needs in a safe, affirming and low-barrier space. Lockers, private bathrooms and showers, a laundry area, and an inventory of toiletries, personal items, clothing, full meals and snacks are all available at no cost. As crisis needs are met and trust is built with staff, youth begin to access more formal supports like vital document recovery, education and employment resources, transportation, housing assessment and referral, and culturally appropriate therapy, health care and wellness activities.

TA: How many homes do you have now? 

LVK: A.Y.A.’s eight homes (two dedicated to parenting mothers and one for youth who identify as LGBTQ+) throughout Kent County hold the capacity to house 21 youth and five children at any given time. Duplex-style homes allow for three to four youth to reside in one unit and an on-site house mentor in the other. Youth pay $300 per month in rent and utilities, with an opportunity to receive a scholarship towards their rent and security deposit upon moving out. Youth sign leases to foster ownership and responsibility of the property. On-site house mentors provide guidance as youth navigate real-world situations, creating a sense of community through weekly house dinners and holiday celebrations. 

A.Y.A. pushes beyond trauma-informed care toward models that promote healing and thriving as staff support youth in identifying their goals and realizing their dreams. These advocates work alongside community partners to provide comprehensive system navigation and case management toward an ultimate outcome of all youth having equitable access to safe and stable housing. 

TA: In our radio interview this summer, Mary DeYoung — a house mentor at one of A.Y.A.’s homes — mentioned a personal story about working with Q's house. How is this house project, which appears more like a beta for something possibly bigger, distinct or expansive in execution?

LVK: One of our core values is agency. We define that as “every person has power and choice. We honor the journey that youth are on and nurture their resilience to act on their strengths. We support healthy opportunities that lead to their thriving.” When Q identified that he wanted homeownership as his next [goal], we honored and supported that choice by connecting him with partners and community members who could help him do that. Because Q works in construction and had the skill set to assist in building his own home, and has career aspirations of being a contractor, to build his own home seemed like an amazing opportunity! We knew we wouldn't do it alone though. 

The fact that First Companies so readily agreed to general contract this project, and a close donor put up the money so that we wouldn’t have to take budget away from programs and projects that were accessed by more youth, is what made this possible. It also exemplifies our community value — every person needs connection to thrive. 

TA: So, creating good community connections still matters in our world? 

LVK: We could not do this project without the connections and community that have come around this project. When we merged, we wanted to increase collaboration, access and opportunities between community members and youth, and this project is proof of that. We believe that there is enough, that our community has what it takes to create a society where all youth have support, stable housing and belonging. We believe that, and this project proves it’s possible; one youth at a time. 

TA: I recall in the late 1980s taking in an unhoused youth who was tossed out of his home simply because he was gay. Back then our options for getting youth housing was really not easy at all. As folks consider the very real possibility of encountering an unhoused youth in their lifetime, can you share a few closing insights on the center to assist others who will carry your message of what you can offer?

LVK: Our drop in center is open Monday through Friday 12-5 p.m. You can find information about what our appointments look like and how many slots are available on our website. But, if you are in need of immediate assistance, it is always best to call our number 616-406-3945.

Anytime during those hours, someone will connect with them. If a youth can’t get in that day, A.Y.A. will help identify resources for them in the meantime. Our advocates can help youth with vital document recovery, job applications, housing connections, meals, basic needs items and more. But, know that youth can also come and just hang out, take a shower, do laundry, or simply relax while watching a movie. 

Our youth have rights whenever they walk into our building, and if anyone wants to know more about our services they are welcome to visit [our website] .


Published Together is a project born out of COVID-19 from Publisher Tommy Allen and is rooted within the art and practice of community conversations. This interview took place over the summer and has been edited as well as condensed.
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