GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — On State Street in Downtown Grand Rapids, AYA Youth Collective's Drop-In Center is busy this time of year. They see about 400 youth who visit from time-to-time. It's a hub of resources and a safe space for teens and young adults facing housing instability.
Younger generations facing housing instability is a much larger issue than many realize in West Michigan, says outreach specialist Li Kaplan.
"On any given night here in Grand Rapids," said Kaplan, "We have upwards of 90 youth who not only are experiencing homelessness, but actually living outside. Somewhere not meant for human habitation."
The drop-in center is a space where they can come during the day, do laundry, take a shower, take a nap, play music or hang out. AYA also works with many of the youth to find them housing. The model is based around building relationships through the center.
However, there have been challenges in finding housing for many of the recent visitors.
"I have youth who actually have set housing vouchers for the last year and they’re still living outside," said Kaplan, "And that’s largely due in part to the fact we don’t have affordable housing here. When we look at it from the outside in, we’re really addressing this issue and we’ve taken great first steps. But we’re sitting on all these resources and our youth are at a standstill. We as providers are with that struggle."
The drop-in center also helps the youth aged 14 to 24 with things that come with navigating adulthood: applying for an I.D., signing up for driver's training, making doctors appointments, obtaining official documents and more.
"Young people are often couch surfing, sometimes sleeping outside, in their cars," said Kendra Avila, housing manager, "And it’s happening here in West Michigan."
Avila said the work they do is hard, but rewarding to see someone meet their goals they set for themselves.
"Youth who are experiencing housing instability in Kent County are in our community," said Avila, "They contribute, and if we’re able to support them, they will make a difference."
The holidays can also be a trying time for many of the youth, as a stark reminder of past trauma. However, AYA does throw a Christmas party, helping them feel comforted and cared for.
"For many of our youth, holidays mean a time they’re remembering they don’t have that support system," said Kaplan.
Kaplan said there are a lot of visitors wanting relationships and support, without the knowledge that there is a resource for them. She said one of their biggest needs as an organization is advocacy support.
"We have a lot of youth, unfortunately, caught up in the cycle of homelessness," said Kaplan, "They’ve grown up in it, they’ve never had a stable support system modeled for them. So, when they reach 18, the reality they know is, 'ok I’ll continue this cycle,' because no one has shown them there’s a different option."
Monetary donations are also helpful for the organization, Kaplan said. It will go toward buying new mattresses, food and more.
To learn more about AYA Youth Collective, visit their website here.
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