The Insider Report is an exclusive communication to community leaders and key supporters of the ministry. We want to share with you a video message as well as a recap of 2020. Keep scrolling to view the following updates:
- COVID-19 Challenges
- Merging with Heartside Ministry and Next Step of West Michigan
- Who is homeless right now?
- Outreach Initiatives
- Does our community need more shelters?
Since March 2020, we have been on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19. We have a responsibility to our staff, guests, and the greater community to do everything within our power to keep the community safe. We have become a leader nationally for missions and shelters. We have regular communication with local, state and federal leaders around the virus and the necessary response. Federal leaders including the security of HUD and the Director of USICH have visited MTM to see firsthand, how we are combating the virus. We continue to be on calls daily with health department officials in an effort to win this fight, all while also continuing to end homelessness.
After the spring wave of the pandemic, one leader from a large health system said, “Were it not for Mel Trotter Ministries, we would have had an outbreak of COVID-19 within our homeless population and the hospitals would have crashed.” We had to adjust everything and adapt. We activated our crisis management team. We built collaborations with government, businesses, and social service organizations. We had to rethink how we recruit and retain staff given that our environment is inherently at risk and even more so during a pandemic.
Part of that thinking included identifying staff communication strategies including daily mass updates, which were filled with not only data and relevant statistical information, but also truth and transparency about what was happening and what we are doing. We instituted hazard pay for front line workers. We rethought operations. Additionally, our expenses rose more than 20% above budget due to the necessary COVID-19 response, requiring us to create stronger revenue streams to offset the unforeseen increase.
And on top of all that, as many of you know, we were in the silent phase of a Capital Campaign which had been in the works for several years prior. Our response to COVID-19 completely changed the way we expect to deliver services in the future and subsequently, the entire Capital Campaign.
Merging with Heartside Ministry and Next Step of West Michigan
As you are also aware, we completed two “mergers” this year—yes, in the year of COVID-19! One was actually an acquisition (Heartside Ministry) and the other organization is now a wholly owned subsidiary of MTM (Next Step of West Michigan). This is not an earth shattering idea in the for-profit world; however, it is unusual in the non-profit world. To be honest, if non-profit organizations do not begin to think more strategically as our for profit siblings do, we will see a significant number of non-profits cease to exist in the future.
The data for years has been showing the philanthropic trends toward decreasing giving and changed giving. There are many reasons for this. In the for-profit world, if your data indicated that revenue was decreasing and was in all likelihood going to continue to significantly decrease, you would ask hard questions about your product, your customers, your funding stream and your business model. Non-profits tend to rely on hope and faith. I do not discount hope and faith, but they alone are not adequate business models.
Our merger with Heartside was strictly about services for those whom we serve. Heartside was providing extremely valuable services, but had always struggled financially and was not going to survive much longer. Their services, if lost, would have a negative impact on the homeless community we (both) serve. Two years prior to the acquisition, we had contracted with them to provide, at a fee, their back of the house support services like IT, HR, Facilities, etc. Eventually the best decision was for MTM to acquire them and bring those services and the brand under our umbrella, thereby gaining efficiencies and being able to grow services that were badly needed.
The second merger with Next Step was about social enterprise and innovation. We believe strongly that the data is clear. Non-profits should not rely on the same amount of fundraising support they receive now to be available in 5 – 10 years. So what should be done? We did a lot of research. We developed a plan and goal that within 10 years, at least 70% of our revenue will be generated through social enterprise business—not donations. We patterned the plan after a couple of organizations we found in the country who set the same goal and achieved it. This plan not only provides alternative revenue streams, but it also provides paid workforce development opportunities for our guests. Next Step had $1.2 million in sales and manufactures wood products for market distribution. They also have contracts with the city to clean miles of alleyways and bus stops, and purchase homes on the city tax roll to renovate, convert, and sell them for affordable housing—all while employing and developing a workforce whom others would not hire.
Friends, we have to be innovative. We have to think differently. Some have asked if this is “mission drift.” It is not. It is adapting so that we can provide the services and fulfill the mission we have had for 120 years. Others have asked if we should compete with other for-profit businesses with our social enterprise plans. My response is that if we can provide a better product and a better price and also provide the benefit of positive social impact through workforce development and ending someone’s homelessness, then it sounds a lot like capitalism that just might change the world.
Who is homeless right now?
For 120 years we have been the safety net in our community for those living in poverty or experiencing homelessness. As long as that need exists we will always be there to do our best to meet it. Yet we have to dream of and work toward something more. Currently, we are working to build a dignified shelter where people feel (and are) safe, and can breathe and dream and think and not feel like they are in an institution or just a number. When you treat people like they are in an institution they will act accordingly. So we are designing and raising funds for a shelter that provides far more private living accommodations and empowers accountability and movement forward.
But that is not enough. We know that our county has an African American population of around 13%. Yet 55% of all those experiencing homelessness are black. Over 90% of all families experiencing homelessness in our community are black. 1 in every 4 black children born today will experience homelessness. That does not just happen. This causes us to be uncomfortable and to ask serious questions of ourselves first and others second. How have we been a part of this and what is ours to do about it? We became one of the first nonprofits in our field to hire a senior level diversity officer to help explore and interact with our guests, our staff, and within our community. We are trying to lead our community with humility toward a more just system. We are a Christian organization and in the book of Micah (6:8), God says he requires that we act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. We must act.
We also know that unaccompanied youth are one of the fastest growing homeless demographics. Nationally 40% of the youth experiencing homelessness have aged out of the foster care system with nowhere to go. 40% identified to their family as being LGBTQ and were disowned and kicked out of the house. These are the kids being trafficked. So we started a youth only shelter where kids could come and rest, be safe, find hope and help. But we did not do this alone; we asked the youth to help us build a program that has worked. We continue to grow this program every day. There are many transgender individuals experiencing homelessness and they are at risk every single day of assault and even being killed. The shelter system has not responded well. Two years ago, we became what we have been told is the first shelter in Michigan and the first faith based shelter in the country for Transgender youth. Many have said we did this in spite of our faith; actually we did it because of our faith. Jesus calls us and demonstrated on earth that we are to love everyone. We are to meet people where they are without judgement and help them one step at a time.
The traditional shelter model has had a ‘Field of Dreams’ mentality: If we build it they will come. But many don’t. What about them? There were many organizations doing outreach in our community to individuals living under bridges and in encampments, yet there still seemed to be a void that we could not quite define. As a result, we took a small staff team on a visioning trip to a sister organization in Seattle who does one of the best jobs at street outreach in the country. We spent a week learning and listening, and actually doing street outreach with their team. Out of that experience, outreach for our community was born—our goal is to do outreach 365 days a year; we have staff and volunteer teams going out several days a week.
We recently added a mobile shower unit to the outreach mix to provide cleanliness and dignity to unsheltered individuals in our community. One woman, upon seeing the shower unit, cried tears of joy and shouted, “All I wanted was a shower and to be clean, now maybe I can get a job and get a house.” Soon, we hope to add a business “wake up” component, which is a service for businesses to call and ask for outreach staff to come and do a gentle wake up of people sleeping in business doorways and in lobbies. Outreach is about relationship.
These kinds of relationships work far better than utilizing law enforcement and provide the best chance for people to move out of homelessness. This also allows businesses to have experts to call to help them navigate tough situations. Jesus tells a story about a shepherd who had 100 sheep. One night he counted and found only 99. One was lost. Instead of forgetting about the lost sheep (because having 99% of anything is pretty good) or blaming the sheep for bad choices and getting lost, the shepherd left the 99 who were safe and went out looking for the one lost sheep. The story says that when the shepherd found the lost sheep, he gently carried him home and was happier about finding the one who was lost than the 99 who were always there. That is outreach.
Does our community need more shelters?
Lastly, these shelters are good but we need more. We need to get upstream and we need to provide housing. The majority of adults who are now homeless, first experienced homelessness as children. The data shows that a child who has experienced homelessness 3 or more times is 70% less likely to graduate high school. What future do they have? Thus, we began to partner with school systems and placed case workers in schools to help identify families either experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of homelessness. Our job is to prevent homelessness and if we encounter it, to then help end it as quickly as possible so we can break the cycle.
As far as housing, we are building a system where I believe one day we will have more staff working with people in housing than we do in shelter. People do better in homes. I believe we will have far more success when we lessen the shelter population and increase those in housing receiving services in a real life environment. We own several houses now where guests pay rent and utilities and receive the degree of case management that they desire. The goal is that within a year, they move into their own permanent housing without need of case management. We are also planning and seeking resources for building neighborhoods where families, market rate owners, and those going through work force development can live together. We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past and simply build more “projects” for poor people. We must also responsibly build neighborhoods so areas do not decrease in value because of the diversity of neighbors.
As Bryan Stevenson said, “The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
Thank you for reading this. Thank you for your character, your compassion, and for being a part of the solution.