GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Grand Rapids nonprofit that supports young people facing homelessness has launched a new partnership with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The effort is designed to knock down barriers that young people face while connecting them with important resources.

Since 2012, the AYA Youth Collective has supported youth who are experiencing a housing crisis.

“We know there are over 200 youth sleeping outside every single month,” said Andy Allen, vice president of advancement with AYA Youth Collective. “We have some of the most vulnerable people in Grand Rapids that are experiencing homelessness, that don’t have support systems in their life. And AYA exists to put those support systems back.”

AYA goes after that mission by offering a supportive housing program and a drop-in center in Grand Rapids for 14- to 24-year-olds.

“Where you can literally drop in to get access to free laundry, free showers, free food, basic needs, all the way to insurance assistance, medical care,” Allen said.

  • Inside the AYA Youth Collective in Grand Rapids. (Nov. 17, 2023)
  • Inside the AYA Youth Collective in Grand Rapids. (Nov. 17, 2023)

During a conversation with a MDHHS representative, KJ Tucker, vice president of programming for AYA Youth Collective, said the agency asked how it can help the youth.

“I said, ‘Well, DHHS is really hard for our youth to navigate because they oftentimes don’t have a working phone or mailing address for many of them,'” Tucker said.

From those talks sprung a new pilot program, in which a MDHHS benefits specialist is now stationed at the AYA Youth Collective’s drop-in center.

“Having that person here to help them navigate the insurance process, to get them connected to a primary care physician or a behavioral help therapist is a true circle of support,” Tucker said.

The specialist also helps youth apply for things like food assistance. Just weeks in, over 40 cases and applications that were pending or denied have been resolved.

“Many of our youth were able to meet with her one day and the very next day get access to their food benefits,” Tucker said. “Youth know us as a safe space to get connected to resources and  we want to make sure that continues to be in real time with what resources they need.”

Tucker says that the AYA Youth Collective and MDHHS will work together to keep the partnership going long-term.