When Shandra Steininger was 18, couch surfing felt safer than home. And then she met Audrey.
"I, at a young age, realized the power that someone has to change your life," Steininger said.
Growing up in an unstable home environment in a small Indiana town, Steininger wasn't challenged to succeed, or do anything distinct from the lifestyle her family knew. When she met Audrey, things changed. Audrey became a mentor and mother figure. She encouraged Steininger. Believed in her. Made sure she went to college.
Today, Steininger is the executive director of HQ, a drop-in center unlike any other in West Michigan.
Located at 320 State Street SE in Grand Rapids, HQ provides a place for youth ages 14 – 24 who have run away, are experiencing homelessness, or whose housing is unsafe or unstable. There, they can find rest, obtain resources and connections, and receive support in realizing their diverse dreams.
With no strings attached.
"We just wanted to be a place where you could come in, put your ear buds in and sit in a corner—if that's the kind of crappy day you had," Steininger said.
HQ believes that homelessness is the complicated convergence of a number of cycles: poverty, unemployment, generational abuse, lack of educational support and more. HQ's staff seeks to help disrupt these converging cycles by meeting youth exactly where they are. By believing each and every individual is the expert of his or her own life. By encouraging a step into self-discovery.
"There's a lot of power in affirming who you are right now. It's part of owning your identity and choosing how to move forward," Steininger said. "The good and the bad brought me to exactly this moment."
Steininger moved to Grand Rapids when she enrolled at Calvin College. During class one day, a speaker presented on homelessness; Steininger left class knowing she found her niche. After graduating with a degree in social work, she began working with youth of this demographic. That's when she met Andy Soper, who was conducting nationwide research on drop-in centers for homeless youth. He approached her with the idea for HQ.
HQ opened in December 2014 with four staff members. During its two years of operation, the drop-in center has tripled in size and served more than 700 youth.
Steininger and her staff use an analogy of a puzzle. Every individual in a community holds a piece, and if everyone is willing to play their piece—what each one of us is passionate about—we could break the cycle of youth homelessness.
"We're all one step away from our lives being very different," Steininger said. "I think for me it was one person."
One piece of the puzzle.
To learn more about HQ's work in the West Michigan community, visit www.hqgr.org.
Written by Cassie Westrate, staff writer for West Michigan Woman.