Ruth Ellis Center building 43 units of supportive housing for LGBTQ young adults

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — In 18 months, what's now an empty field on Clairmount, just west of Woodward, will be a new home for dozens of LGBTQ young adults now experiencing homelessness.

The 43-unit mixed-use permanent housing development is a collaboration between Highland Park’s Ruth Ellis Center and Full Circle Communities, a non-profit developer out of Chicago and represents a movement toward offering a vulnerable community housing before tackling other issues that can lead to homelessness.

Thirty-four of the units will be offered supported by vouchers that will cover most, if not all, of their expense. Eight units will be offered at low-cost. The final unit will be home to a live-in peer support specialist.

Jerry Peterson, executive director of Detroit's Ruth Ellis Center in a vacant field, west of Woodward on Clairmont, on January 22, 2020, where 43 units of permanent supportive housing for LGBTQ young adults, 18-25, who have experienced chronic homelessness will be built.

The residents will have more than a roof over their head. A range of resources will be offered, including a health and wellness center, two case managers and a behavioral health specialist, said Jerry Peterson, executive director of the Ruth Ellis Center. Primary care doctors will be available as well as addiction and mental health counseling. 

The audience for the building is LGBT people from 18 to 25 years of age, Peterson said, “with a special emphasis on providing stable housing for transgender women of color.”

Kunda said that while the facility has been "designed intentionally to address the needs of LGBTQ people," he added that "the project will not, and cannot be restricted, targeted nor have any preference based on gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity. Accessing supportive services will not be limited based on those criteria either."  

“Every single resident will have access to the resources they need,” Peterson said. 

The development is expected to break ground this spring and open by mid-2021. 

Housing-first model

The housing-first theory, said Mary Sheffield, president pro tem of the Detroit City Council, and creator in 2015 of the city’s homelessness task force, is that once housing is set, “then we address all of their other issues around substance abuse and mental health.”

“If they're using drugs or alcohol, they do not have to stop using in order to get housing,” Peterson said. “We want to get them into housing first and surround them with all sorts of supportive services, including substance use disorders, behavioral health, case management, and job training. That’s the way to move people forward.”

Sheffield said homeless youth are often undercounted because “couch-surfing” isn’t technically considered homelessness, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

“They get lost in the system,” Sheffield said. “We lose sight of them when counting the population of homeless individuals.”

In 2018, 916 people under the age of 24 experienced homelessness in Detroit, and 95% of them were between 18 and 24, according to the Homeless Action Network of Detroit's 2018 State of Homelessness Annual Report.

The housing project will also offer career training and event space on the first floor.

A cafe that will offer food service training and a beauty bar offering cosmetology training will be open to the community and provide training opportunities for residents. 

A town hall space will be open to community use and a kitchen will let residents cook with friends and family, Peterson said.

Partnerships allow Full Circle to expand its reach, while funding the wraparound services its properties offer. Three-quarters of every dollar Full Circle earns in rents go back into services for its tenants, said Carl Kunda, a project manager with Full Circle Communities, the Ruth Ellis Center’s partner on the project.

Photos are of officials with the city of Detroit and Motor City Pride during a ceremony to raise the rainbow pride flag in honor of LGBT Pride Month in Hart Plaza, in Detroit, June 6, 2018.

Location, location, location

The site of the Ruth Ellis Center, near Detroit’s north end and Woodward Avenue’s Piety Hill, was chosen to reach young people where they are.

“This is the area where most of the young people we serve, have grown up, and hang out,” said Jerry Peterson, executive director of the Ruth Ellis Center. 

The project will cost about $10.5 million, and its total cost will be about $15 million after costs for environmental reports, energy testing to qualify the building as “green rated” and legal fees are considered, Kunda said. 

Up the road in Ferndale, just a few miles north of the Ruth Ellis Center, is Affirmations, a 17,000-square foot facility on Nine Mile. 

“One could argue Ferndale is the LGBT center or neighborhood, of southeast Michigan,” said Dave Garcia, executive director of Affirmations, which offers opportunities for fellowship, discussion and 12-hour-a-day computer access, along with job training and internship opportunities. 

Garcia hailed the housing development for a community whose young people often are rejected by their families for their sexuality or gender identification.

“Who among us could have survived without our parents’ help at 18, 19, 20, 21, 22? What do they do? Where do they go?” Garcia said.

Affirmations had a young man come in who’d been kicked out of his parents’ home at age 18, while he was a student at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Garcia said. 

“While all the other kids have a home to go home to over the summer, he has nowhere to go,” Garcia said. “And so he’s couch surfing.”

The Ruth Ellis Center is named for longtime Detroiter Ruth Ellis, who moved to the city in the 1930s and died at 101 in 2000.

"Beginning in the 1930s, Ms. Ellis provided shelter, physical support and spiritual affirmation to those whose race, sexual orientation or both set them apart from the dominant culture," its website explains. 

Today that work continues with Ruth's House, a nine-bed facility for teenagers referred by the state health department. The center is also recruiting five or six homes to serve as hosts, for a three-to-six month period, to clients it referrers who need to stabilize their housing, Peterson said. They would be paid a stipend. 

But the new development is a move toward more permanent solutions, Peterson said, one brings to fruition the trust it works to build with drop-ins who find the center, or those it meets during street outreach.

"Young people who've been isolated and experiencing homelessness, generally speaking, have a real difficulty trusting agencies, because they've had a lot of bad experience," Peterson said. "You need to provide a safe space that builds enough trust for them to even engage with you around housing."

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