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HQ youth are unrelenting, brave: My experience as an HQ Drop-In Supervisor

Working at HQ, a drop in center for youth who are experiencing homelessness, have run away or whose housing is unsafe or unstable, means I have the duty to share a little bit of what is like to know and be known by them.
Hanging artwork at HQ crafted by youth, staff and volunteers.

Hanging artwork at HQ crafted by youth, staff and volunteers. /Michelle Jokisch Polo

What is HQ?

HQ is a drop-in center  for runaway and homeless youth between 14 and 24 years of age. If you find yourself walking, biking or driving on State Street SE look out for the big, green HQ on our window pane. We are proud to be part of the Heritage Hills neighborhood. 

To learn more about HQ or to get involved please check out,


It was the smack dab middle of December, and I found myself plopped on the floor of this crisp brand new building which still carried the smell of fresh paint, attempting to paint a sixteen year old’s toenails. She was getting ready to attend the high school dance later that evening with her boyfriend. Her hair and make up were on point, and the painted toenails were the last task on her list. I quickly jumped at the opportunity to paint some blue on each calloused, sturdy toe. It was my first month as a drop-in supervisor at HQ. 

I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I stepped into the HQ supervisor position. When I think of that day I smirk at my naïve self. I don’t think I understood what she meant by hustling for a place to rest her head. Forced to choosing to spend a night on a stranger’s bed as a way to avoid home or the dreary winter cold. Always hiding and changing her story in attempts to not be found out. To not be found out that she spent the night walking around downtown instead of going home. 

I didn’t know that the label of “homelessness” didn’t tell their entire story, and little did I know on month one that–in the year and a half that would follow– that I was about to get a little glimpse of some of the bravest and most accepting humans I have ever encountered. 

HQ youth are unrelenting and unafraid. Their daily reality often involves moving from couch to couch with their belongings stuffed into a small backpack. They have learned to be resourceful and brave. They know last night was not the last time they were asked to find another couch for the night. They can spot inauthenticity easily, and they are never too shy to ask you why.  They are incredibly funny and awkward—in most of the ways I tend to be.  They really just want to know they are liked—the very same feeling I get when I wake up in the mornings. They are very smart, and often need to be reminded of just that. Sometimes they are afraid and lonely—just like I am too. 

Something else I learned was that in Grand Rapids, runaway and homeless youth have very few resources at hand. If they are not old enough, they do not get to eat a meal at the shelter downtown. Even having a space to store their most prized belongings is difficult to obtain. They have very little privacy and space that is their own. They can count on one hand the places they can safely shower without being bothered or asked for too much. A reality I know should never have to be.  

But at HQ, food is not out of the question, and he doesn’t have to ask to take the last two sandwiches in the fridge, and she doesn’t have to worry when she showers because the door locks behind her when she walks in.  To be here means we get to have a conversations, about finding safe places to rest at night,  about knowing your rights and advocating, about what it feels like when you get the keys to your first apartment. I get to wonder alongside them because I believe they deserve better than what they have been given. Wondering with them means I get to ask them how they were treated when they asked for help. It means I understand how systemic oppression affects their lives. It means I know how the color of their skin has excluded them out of accessing basic needs, services and housing. It means I acknowledge their experience and share my own. And WE get to navigate the experience that is homelessness and unstable housing together.

Now nearly a year and a half later since the date of my hire, I come with a bit of perspective. 

The kind of perspective one is only granted through the daily practice of building relationships. Trying over and over again to be present. To apologize. To ask questions. To celebrate. To be vulnerable. To be human. And in the practice of this, HQ youth invited me in. And for the very first time in a long time I knew I belonged.   

Even though some days I am running frantically through our space in an attempt to answer questions from the youth who hasn’t stopped yelling my name since they walked thru the doors, I kindly shake myself awake and remember to take a deep breath and a closer look. A closer look at the opportunity I get to advocate and empower the brave youth I work with. 

Some things have changed since HQ’s opening day. The building no longer smells like fresh paint, and our wooden tables have a couple of dents here and there.  But the memory of swiping through the photographs she took of herself and her boyfriend as they danced the night away remains. A small reminder of her heart opening up again because she knew she didn’t have to worry if HQ would be here the next day.


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