Nonprofits

Volunteer group addresses area’s chronic homelessness

Women 4 Dégagé offers resources and looks to help Dégagé’s Open Door Women’s Center.

September 27, 2019
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A group of clients uses the Open Door women’s shelter, which Dégagé plans to expand. Courtesy Dégagé

Women are the most vulnerable population as chronic homelessness worsens in Grand Rapids, so a newly formed group of women volunteers is working to give them the extra help they need. 

Chronic homelessness — when someone has been homeless for over a year or has had four episodes of homelessness in the last three years — has gone up 94%, said Marge Palmerlee, Dégagé Ministries executive director. 

“We're seeing people who are falling into that chronically homeless category who previously weren't,” Palmerlee said. “They were able to get back on their feet with support. Now, there just is not enough housing available in our community.” If someone has a housing voucher but cannot find a place to rent, they lose that voucher and have to start again, she said.

Even though women are the “most vulnerable in our community” to becoming homeless — 52% of the 500 people Dégagé serves each day are now women — only about 30% of all shelter beds in Grand Rapids are available to them. 

“We need to do better,” Palmerlee said. 

Linda Vos-Graham, former owner of Vos Glass and a Dégagé volunteer, had a vision for gathering women to help these women in need. After a breakfast meeting with Carole Valade, former Business Journal editor, they decided to form Women 4 Dégagé to help the nonprofit’s Open Door Women’s Center clients. 

“Everyone has a right to a safe place to sleep, support for the most basic of needs and a chance to dream, as well,” Valade said. 

Since forming the group, Valade said she has been recruiting other women leaders to join.

“There are many high-profile women involved and a lot of other women who just want to do something to help,” Valade said. 

The group includes Dégagé alumni, as well. 

“So, that when they have some time, they can come to the shelter and help other women get through what they've already been through and offer hope,” Valade said. 

The volunteers are using their networks to do what they can to ensure Dégagé’s clients are successful. Some are donating money, some are doing product drives and others are ensuring the clients have clothes or furniture or networking opportunities or whatever else they need. 

While there’s a close-knit community at the nonprofit, Palmerlee said graduates of the programs often feel isolated after they move into apartments of their own. 

“There are women in this group who are interested in walking alongside women after they move out,” Palmerlee said. 

The group hopes to recruit more local women to its ranks to enhance the kind of support it can offer.

“More than anything, come and meet these women because their stories are incredible,” Valade said. “You could do a whole book out of these women and their stories.”

One client Valade met used to live with her brother, who then died of cancer. She couldn’t afford the rent by herself and then became homeless. 

Another woman was kicked out of her home by her parents at age 18, left to sleep in an alley. She became pregnant and was not able to stay at the shelter with a baby. Dégagé isn’t licensed to house women with children, which was especially problematic during last winter’s polar vortex and this summer’s heat waves, Valade said she learned when meeting with Palmerlee about the group.

Dégagé finally was able to get the pregnant teen a small, unfurnished apartment. She went into labor 24 hours later and was waiting at the bus stop for a ride to the hospital when she called Dégagé again for help. 

“It just makes me want to cry,” Valade said. “Eighteen years old. What do you know about giving birth, let alone going through it by yourself?”

After her story was shared, Valade said a “well-known businesswoman” involved with the volunteer group donated furniture so the woman and her baby wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor. 

Another volunteer brought in a bottle of nail polish to the shelter. 

“You'd have thought you'd just given somebody a million-dollar prize,” Valade said. “It’s little things like that that you don't even think about.”

Palmerlee said Women 4 Dégagé will be a vital part of sharing the story of Open Door and connecting to others in the community as the nonprofit prepares for a $6 million expansion that includes the women’s center. 

Open Door provides beds for up to 40 women each night. It was formed in 2003 to help women with immediate needs. 

Palmerlee said the organization had been talking about expanding the program. Dégagé purchased the facility behind its main building, at 139 Sheldon Ave. SE, when it became available about a year-and-a-half ago, the Business Journal reported in March. 

Dégagé plans to build a new three-story, 5,366-square-foot structure on that property and renovate two adjacent buildings facing Sheldon Avenue and the headquarters building, at 144 S. Division Ave. The new structure will connect all of Dégagé’s buildings and allow passage between them. The plan is to begin construction in the spring.

The women’s shelter will be moved to the third floor of the new building, allowing Open Door to serve 66 women, and there will be room to also house women with children.

“We're turning women away practically every night, and we want to be able to accommodate more women in a more dignified way,” Palmerlee said. 

In partnership with Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, Palmerlee said Dégagé will add an area where clients can recuperate after surgery. Palmerlee said doctors often delay surgery when patients have nowhere to recover, and those who have undergone surgery could be subject to additional issues. This will give patients the ability to recover in a safe place.

The expansion also will allow Open Door to have sleeping capacity for women who work third shift. Now, women who use the service oftentimes are not able to accept a third-shift job because they have no place to rest during the day.

The project also will allow expansion of Pauls’ Moms’ Cookies, the nonprofit’s cookie-baking and sales venture that employs women who have gone through Dégagé programs. The venture operates in a church, which limits baking to one day per week. 

“So, we weren't able to expand the business because we didn't have baking capabilities,” Palmerlee said.

Pauls’ Moms’ Cookies will have a permanent home in the new building’s basement, which will allow it to expand and hire more people. The venture also will get a retail space in the front of Dégagé’s existing building on Division.

The project includes new classrooms for helping clients with workforce development, personal finance and other skills.

To join Women 4 Dégagé, Valade said the only requirement is a passion for helping others — that’s all.

“We're asking women to come together for other women,” she said.

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