Housing is an essential component of health care. When reliable housing is accounted for, a person can focus on improving their physical and mental health. For young lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ+) people aged 18-25, who are homeless or at risk of being homeless, their sexual or gender orientation or gender expression can complicate the process of finding a housing solution. They may not be accepted or feel accepted just anywhere, and that could lead them down a continued path of health inequity.
Since 1999, the Ruth Ellis Center has worked to reverse that notion. The center – named after the late Detroit LGBTQ+ activist Ruth Ellis – provides trauma-informed services for LGBTQ+ youth and young adults. Specifically, it helps people of color who experience homelessness and general barriers to health and wellbeing.
Knowing that supportive housing can critically impact a young person’s future, the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) Foundation and BCBSM Social Mission awarded a $50,000 grant to the Ruth Ellis Center in 2020 as part of the “Supportive Housing for Health to Advance Health Equity in Michigan” initiative. The grant primarily funded the hiring and salary of youth peer advocate Lemon Hudson, who works at Ruth Ellis’ new Clairmount Center.
Ruth Ellis Center’s on-site peer leader and the importance of representation within the staff
Core to the Ruth Ellis Center’s identity is the value it places on hiring staff with lived experiences similar to the people it serves.
“When we were opening the Clairmount Center, we wanted to ensure we had a youth peer leader who could provide peer support services to residents living at the Clairmount Center,” Hassevoort said. “Somebody that could relate based on similar life experiences, who could help navigate those challenges and be a part of our supportive services team. To really build that rapport and connection in a unique way, as a peer.”
Hudson is an ally to every resident in the Clairmount Center. He’s a trusting face and a qualified leader. Haasevoort describes him as an integral part of the housing supportive team and is involved in all of Ruth Ellis’ weekly team meetings and case consultant meetings.
“(Hudson) provides input as somebody with lived experiences and also, somebody who has developed deep relationships with the people who live here,” Hassevoort said.
Hudson helps interview incoming Clairmount team members, to help ensure that the people who are hired or brought in are people the residents can trust. Hassevoort believes one of Hudson’s most valuable responsibilities as youth peer advocate is supporting the Clairmount Advisory Board. This is a board made up of tenants in the building that meets once a month to discuss issues related to community living or needs they see in the building.
“One thing I’ll say is Lemon is one of the warmest, friendliest, most fun people I’ve ever been around,” Hassevoort said. “He has a spirit and energy you can’t help but gravitate toward. So, I think even the young people that have decided to participate in the advisory board, a lot of them are there because Lemon approached them with that opportunity and talked about the difference they could make in the community by sharing their stories, sharing their perspectives, sharing their voices.”
“The Ruth Ellis Center has done an incredible job of not only providing housing for at-risk people of color and LGBTQ+ youth in Detroit but surrounding them with staff members who have walked in the same shoes they have,” said BCBSM Foundation Senior Program Officer Kelly Brittain. “It’s a pleasure for us to invest in an organization that is so thorough and thoughtful in its practices.”
Reflecting on the grant and building off its momentum
The Clairmount Center opened in September 2022 and within three months, it was fully leased out. Hassevoort said the center is supporting and housing 42 people. He added that he and the rest of the Clairmount staff are grateful for the Foundation’s flexibility in helping the nonprofit navigate through uncertain times brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Blue Cross Blue Shield has been an excellent partner in being flexible with us in working through the pandemic,” Hassevoort said. “The pandemic really impacted the plans around the construction starting on the building. As a grant recipient, we certainly have a lot of appreciation for funders who can be flexible and understand the challenges we navigated, and that we all navigated starting in 2020. It was really beneficial to know that we had a partner who we knew would support us.”
The 43-unit, mixed-use Clairmount Center in Detroit offers community amenities like a resource library and technology center, community kitchen and pharmacy as well as a health and wellness center where clients can access primary care services, gender-affirming care and HIV and STI prevention and treatment services. The nonprofit organization’s center benefits from an on-site art therapy studio that includes traditional forms of behavioral health – like talk counseling – as well as less conventional forms like art therapy, which can be a less intimidating form of therapy, especially for those who have never received it.
“We recognize that housing is a foundational need that we all have,” said Ruth Ellis Center Housing Director Luke Hassevoort. “We need it in order to do the things that we want in life, to pursue our goals, to have a safe space to come to, to lay our heads at night. We want to use take that foundation and use it to connect people to the other sort of services and forms of support they made need.”
Visit the BCBSM Foundation website to learn more about Community Health Matching Grant Program, including eligibility, proposal requirements, and more. Check out these Foundation stories to learn more about the groundbreaking accomplishments made by Michigan nonprofits over the last few years:
- Birth Detroit, Rootead Enrichment Center Empower and Support Mothers of Color with Crucial Prenatal, Postnatal Services
- PEARS Increases Early Autism Identification in Toddlers with Play-Based, Rapid Interactive Screening System
- United Methodist Community House Making Healthy Groceries More Affordable for Grand Rapids and Kent County Residents
Photo credit: Ruth Ellis Center/Clairmount Center