Mel Trotter Ministries, located at 225 Commerce Avenue SW in Grand Rapids, will create a designated space necessary to best serve the transgender community. Photo courtesy of MTM

Grand Rapids Shelter Creates Designated Space for Trans Guests

BY KATE OPALEWSKI

Early this fall, Mel Trotter Ministries in Grand Rapids is set to open what appears to be the first, and so far only shelter space of its kind in Michigan designated for the transgender community.

MTM has always served the transgender population, but what became clear to the Mission from those experiences and in conversations with advocates for the transgender community was the need for a designated space to best serve this population.

For the last year MTM has had a pilot program space where among others, transgender guests were staying.

"It was successful and the need began to grow in such a way that we decided the next step was to create a designated space for a population that is so often vulnerable and marginalized," said Dennis Van Kampen, CEO at MTM, which exists according to the Mission's website to demonstrate the compassion of Jesus Christ, through rescue and restoration for anyone experiencing hunger and homelessness.

"Not only were they intentional, but they are also committed and dedicated to making this happen," said Jeynce Poindexter, transgender victims advocate at Equality Michigan. Poindexter contacted Adrienne Goodstal, vice president of programs at MTM about a transender client she was working with that is experiencing homelessness and had been turned away from other area shelters.

"Many times we hear 'We're going to do this,' but people never follow up. She did. It was the most beautiful thing. This is a deliberate act of love and inclusion and diversity and respect and it gets no better than that," said Poindexter, who traveled to MTM with Serena Johnson, director of victim services at EQMI, to learn more about their mission, to see the space that they currently use for housing transgender guests and to provide feedback on the new space.

"It is very important to us that we are opening this space with intentionality in better understanding this community and how we can best serve them," said Van Kampen, adding that EQMI was invited to come in and provide training to MTM's frontline staff.

A four-hour training session was focused around education in understanding not only the transgender community, but the entire LGBTQ community. Van Kampen said attendees were impacted by the staggering statistics of homelessness, assault and suicide that affect the transgender community.

"It was also really helpful for staff to have a safe non-judgmental space to ask a transgender individual questions and to hear about their first-hand experiences," he said.

Poindexter said she was clear that "our trainings are not for people to feel they have to change their stance on their religious beliefs or to completely understand what it means to be transgender. This is to help them understand that you have a duty morally and ethically as a professional and a service provider. When this community comes in contact with you in that role, your duty is to do your best to provide adequate support and equally moral service to everyone."

MTM also consulted with staff and volunteers from the Grand Rapids Pride Center, who Van Kampen said have been "really supportive from the start of this journey that MTM is taking." MTM also received direct feedback from other individuals who are a part of the transgender community.

"There is great value in diversity. What we have learned, however is that certain populations are more comfortable and therefore more successful when they create and maintain their own space," said Van Kampen, pointing to other designated spaces at MTM for families with children, unaccompanied youth, elderly guests suffering from physical or mental illness, and others.

"We do not create these spaces to segregate people, rather to do what is best to serve the needs of the guests and to accomplish our vision of ending homelessness one life at a time through the power of Christ. Our number one goal is safety and security for all," he said.

"We have found that most people experiencing homelessness do not enter homelessness due to a lack of money, at least not at first. They enter because of a lack of relationship and community. Often, the difference between a person ending up on the streets or in a shelter is due to a lack of relationships. MTM has become the safety net in the community for anyone who is experiencing homelessness, and that includes the LGBTQ population."

All guests at MTM are offered safety, shelter, food and the basic essentials for a healthy life. Additionally, each guest has the choice to enter a restoration program based on their barriers to achieving stable housing and finances. These services include job readiness, housing readiness, addiction recovery, housing first, computer labs, medical clinics, ministry and relationships and community.

It takes approximately $10 million in cash and gifts every year to sustain the building, programs and services that we provide. MTM does this through a network of individuals, corporate, foundation and church donors. However, as the needs increase so do the costs and MTM always welcomes new donors to support the ministry.

"Our mission and vision are clear. As Christians we are called to demonstrate the compassion of Christ to anyone experiencing homelessness, period. We are striving to help people leave homelessness for good. If a larger model for other organizations develop out of this, then we will be humbled," said Van Kampen.

"There is a lot to learn from the life of Jesus as recorded in the scriptures. We are simply trying to love people and walk with them in the same way he did. As a society, we should all be very bothered that anyone has to face the dangerous reality of living on the streets and putting their life at risk because they have nowhere else to go. The problem of homelessness is too big for one organization or policy to solve. But it is not so big that if we all come together we cannot solve it."

Mel Trotter Ministries is located at 225 Commerce Avenue SW in Grand Rapids. Call 616-454-8249 or visit http://www.meltrotter.org/home for more information.
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