I am privileged to serve as the CEO of Alternatives for Girls (AFG), which serves homeless and at-risk girls in Southeast Michigan. I’m a social worker and initially worked in child abuse and neglect. In 1987, I was doing that work and living in the neighborhood around Tiger Stadium (Michigan and Trumbull). I was part of a growing neighborhood conversation about the number of girls and young women in Southwest Detroit who were at risk of being in harm’s way, services that were available for girls, and the needs and the gaps in services to girls and young women.
We — a broad and informal group of neighbors, church members, and community leaders — determined that there were three key gaps in services: a shelter for homeless girls and young women, outreach to those who were victims of trafficking and otherwise engaged in the sex industry, and programming to support girls and their families with the goal of helping them stay in school and graduate. I quit my job so I could work full time as a volunteer, working with other neighbors who were committed to getting this project up and running. Father John Meyer, then pastor of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, along with a number of Sisters of Mercy, and other committed neighbors worked together to seek potential funding sources. I started training volunteers to help staff the shelter in anticipation of opening in April 1988.
Then, one very cold day in January of 1988, a 16-year-old girl came to the door of St. Peter’s Church, where we had free office space, with no place to go. I spent a couple of hours with her and confirmed she really had no safe options at all with immediate or extended family, or beyond. We decided that there was no turning back; that we would open, immediately, despite our lack of financial resources, in response to the need in our community. We opened without money — taking a unique approach! I reached out to all the volunteers we’d been training, asked them to come and help out, and we were off and running.
Now, 33 years later, we continue to help girls and women who are experiencing homelessness or otherwise are at risk, through three basic areas of programming — shelter, prevention, and outreach. Our runaway program includes a short-term shelter for girls, ages 15 to 17. We also offer emergency shelter for young adult women, ages 18 to 21, and a transitional living program for girls and young women ages 15 to 21. For those who are ready to move out of the shelter, but would benefit from continuing support, our subsidized housing project provides help with rent as our participants move into their own or a shared apartment, along with intensive support services.
Our outreach program provides street-based services for those involved in the sex industry, many of whom have been victims of trafficking, as well as casework and peer support services for those working to transition out of sex work. We provide leadership training for teen girls and young women who are at risk in various ways, and then we hire them and pay them to reach out to their peers with education, outreach, and peer support. Finally, our prevention program supports girls and their families, primarily in Southwest Detroit, who are at risk for school dropout and other hazards, helping them — and helping their families to help them — to stay in school, graduate, and go on to post-secondary education.
Many of the girls, women, and families with whom we work, as well as members of our staff, have been impacted by COVID-19, directly or indirectly. It’s been a very stressful time, and many of us have lost family members and close friends. Everyone at AFG who is able to do their work remotely is doing so, but the shelter cannot be run remotely, nor can our crisis resource center. We have wonderful, generous, brave, and committed staff members who have been continuing to run the shelter and crisis resource center, day in, day out, welcoming girls and women who come to our door. The Detroit Health Department has been a terrific partner in this.
They have visited us multiple times every week and they’re administering tests continuously. They’re taking the temperatures of the girls and women there, as well as their infants, toddlers, and young children. They are also helping to educate the residents about the virus and how to stay safe. Further, the collaboration of shelter providers throughout the city has worked extremely well together, sharing resources and information, providing a continuum of care for those experiencing homelessness.
We have seen people come to us and call us in crisis during the pandemic, driven to seek shelter or other services due to crises precipitated by domestic violence. Sheltering in place is problematic when one’s home is not a safe place. Mobility challenges make it really difficult to reach out for help.
What has been a godsend has been people looking out for each other and making calls on behalf of those that they know are at risk. Friends are lining up resources and conveying that information and support to those in need. We urge people to pay attention to others in their circle who may need help and not be in a position to ask for it.
We could not have gotten through this without the help of our friends. People who’ve been supportive of AFG for years, as well as new friends who have sought us out because of the critical nature of our mission during this pandemic, have reached out to us, and have been generous with financial support, donations of masks, meals, and many other resources. The fact is that every person in every family is under some stress right now.
When we see the way our new and long-time friends have provided for our extra needs with one generous gift after another, we just shake our heads in amazement and say “thank you.” We commit to using their gifts well in support of our mission, and we know that every gift will be impactful in the lives of the homeless and high-risk girls and women whom we serve.
Amy Good is the founder and executive director of Alternatives for Girls, a nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless and high-risk girls and young women avoid violence, teen pregnancy, and exploitation, and help them to explore and access the support, resources, and opportunities necessary to be safe, to grow strong and to make positive choices in their lives. Stay tuned for her next entry in our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19 is impacting the nonprofit sector--and how they are innovating. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.ACT.