How the Ruth Ellis Center is protecting Detroit’...

How the Ruth Ellis Center is protecting Detroit’s LGBTQ youth during the coronavirus crisis

"So many of the young people we work with experience trauma and violence on a daily basis. They’re more resilient than anyone I’ve met in my entire life.”

By Sarah Williams

Throughout the pandemic, the Ruth Ellis Center has kept providing its critical services for vulnerable LGBTQ Detroiters, like medical care, housing and food. But social distancing requirements means youth who rely on the center are losing a lifeline, while facing compounding health and safety risks.

Still, their community has decades of experience, strengthened while weathering the HIV epidemic, of overcoming extraordinary obstacles together, said Mark Erwin-McCormick, director of development and advancement at Ruth Ellis. 

“Although [COVID-19] is something we’ve never tackled before, so many of the young people we work with experience trauma and violence on a daily basis,” Erwin-McCormick said. “They’re more resilient than anyone I’ve met in my entire life.”

In a typical year, about 500 LBGTQ young people ages 13 to 30 come to the Ruth Ellis Drop-In Center in Highland Park, an enclave within Detroit’s borders. It’s a place to hang out, as well as find resources like hot dinners, hygiene items, safer sex supplies, recreational activities, free laundry, computer access, peer support groups, case management and job training. 

Though Ruth Ellis’ residential unit continues its foster care intake, and its medical center remains open, the drop-in facility has canceled its daily programming, gatherings and face-to-face services as COVID-19 spreads.

That’s left a major gap in services and social ties for individuals who may have nowhere else to turn for support. Social isolation is frightening to people who are overlooked by mainstream systems of care, and it’s painful to lose access to a space where they are seen and valued, said Lilianna Reyes, director at the Drop-in Center.

“Most of the youth we serve are African American, with some [who are] Latina and Latino,” Reyes said. “People come to the Ruth Ellis Center to see people who are chosen family, or biological family, and they feel safe, they feel loved, they feel supported. And because of that, their resources make better sense and are easier to navigate.”

Reyes, a trans woman of color, said the Center was a haven for her when she was younger. 

“I come from the community, from all the issues that I’m talking about,” she said. “Ruth Ellis was the only center at the time to open up a space for trans women of color to just be, and to thrive, without someone calling the police or thinking they’re going to do anything.” 

Staff have found workarounds to continue providing critical services while practicing social distancing. They’re reaching out through tele-health therapy and case management, phone calls, social media and video check-ins. They’re assembling food and clothing packages, for pick-up outside the Drop-In Center every Friday. (You can call (313) 365-3337 for more info or to schedule a pick-up.)

Artistic portrait of Ruth Ellis in a waiting room at the Ruth Ellis Center.
A portrait of Ruth Ellis in the center named after her. Ellis, who died at age 101 in 2000, came out as a lesbian in 1915 and provided support and shelter for those in need starting in 1930. 

Doctors who get it, even during a pandemic 

Since the center cut programming, Jay Theden, a volunteer at the center and a regional LBGTQ advocate, has reached out hundreds of times to make sure LGBTQ youth have food and can get healthcare they need.

Theden, 29, is a trans man living with HIV. He’s been a part of the Ruth Ellis family for 10 years, relying on the Health and Wellness Center’s “non-judgmental, comprehensive care.” This includes his HIV medication and hormone therapy, which he hopes won’t become difficult to access as the pandemic continues. 

He says the people he’s met through the Ruth Ellis Center have helped him find joy and be open about himself, which makes him want to do all he can to “keep everybody afloat.”

The Ruth Ellis Health and Wellness Center partners with Henry Ford Health System to provide LGBTQ youth with primary care, including prevention care, individual and family counseling and substance abuse treatment. In addition to tele-health, the center will continue to provide scheduled appointments and needed medications during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Erwin-McCormick stressed that young people who rely on Ruth Ellis won’t lose access to their medication. Forty percent of those Ruth Ellis serves are living with HIV, he said, and 20% identify as transgender and are in the process of transitioning, which may include medications.

The Henry Ford team has developed procedures to protect patients and staff during the outbreak. They regularly work at the Health and Wellness Center, rather than a rotating group of doctors, which limits potential exposure, Erwin-McCormick added.

Theden said the health center has been “life-changing” — particularly because of his physician, Dr. Maureen Connolly, or “Dr. Mo.”  

“Especially in the trans community, we really appreciate doctors who are understanding about our individual needs because not everybody’s journey is the same,” Theden said. “There is no overall ‘trans care.’” 

Jay Theden, a volunteer at the center and a regional LBGTQ advocate, stands to Wanda Sykes’ right with other youth served by the Ruth Ellis Center. The comedian was honored at a fundraiser gala for the Ruth Ellis Center in 2019.  

Self-isolating without stable housing

For the seven teens living in Ruth’s House, a residential facility for self-identifying LGBTQ youth in the foster system, pandemic life means increased time together, in the absence of a larger community, and using a new homeschooling program of online learning and hands-on activities.

They also have regular check-ins with specialist staff to help with self-care and frustration with staying indoors, said residential director Staci Hirsch.

“I can’t say their LGBTQ status has in any way made the impact any harder than for their straight counterparts,” Hirsch said. “But trauma is cumulative, and this only adds to existing, poorly-managed stressors which, due to social exclusion and bigotry, add to our kiddos’ distress.”

Staff are more concerned than usual about housing for the majority of young people who come to Ruth Ellis regularly, but don’t live at the center. 

“When we’re not in the midst of COVID-19, youth are often having to be in unsafe situations in order to just have a roof over their head,” said Luke Hassevoort, the Center’s housing manager. “A lot of couch-surfing situations put them at risk for things like sexual assault or being sexually exploited.” 

It’s a challenge in healthy times to navigate safe shelter for LGBTQ youth, Hassevoort said, even working with agencies who are taking steps to serve this population better. There’s a lot that’s uncontrollable in a shelter environment, and LGBTQ youth, especially trans-identifying youth, report harassment or disrespect by shelter staff or residents, he said. 

But because of social distancing, those who want to leave an unsafe housing situation might feel like they don’t have anywhere else to go. Many aren’t using shelter services right now, and the new burdens on social service providers means it will likely take longer to move people into permanent housing, according to Hassevoort. 

“One of the roles we try to play is being an advocate for the youth we serve throughout that process of going from shelter into safe and stable housing,” he said. “Right now, we’re just not able to do that at the same capacity.”

One crisis among many

The COVID-19 pandemic itself isn’t the largest issue the community is dealing with, Reyes said.

“I haven’t seen people panic the way I’ve seen the general public panic,” Reyes said. “Unfortunately, but also fortunately, because of the lens they walk through every day, this is just something else.” 

That leads to the mindset that “more than likely, there’ll be a tomorrow. And even if there’s not, I have great moments right here.”

But ongoing threats to safety, housing and health, and issues with racism, discrimination and lack of acceptance are made worse because of the current crisis. 

“My fear is that when the coronavirus goes away, these issues don’t stop for the youth,” Reyes said, “and they’ll just become invisible again.” 

The Ruth Ellis Center has suspended all in-kind donations and fundraising events. This has been a hardship to the organization but necessary to limit the spreading of the coronavirus. The center is still accepting monetary donations, which will be used to provide food boxes and hot to-go meals and to offset additional costs during the crisis.

This story has been updated with the Ruth Ellis Center’s new food and care package pick-up day.