Get to Know a Grantee: Alternatives for Girls, Inc.
Marking its 35th anniversary this year, Alternatives for Girls (AFG) began in 1987 as a small volunteer group based in southwest Detroit, Michigan, after community members noticed a growing problem of young girls and women living on the streets. At the heart of AFG’s work are the challenges faced by at-risk girls and young women. With support from the Family and Youth Services Bureau’s (FYSB) Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) Program, AFG now serves 626 girls and young women a year, has more than 75 staff members, and provides outreach to thousands more girls and young women.
To celebrate AFG’s 35-year history in addressing the needs of women and girls, the RHY Clearinghouse spoke with AFG Founder and Chief Executive Officer Amy Good, Chief Operating Officer Celia Thomas, and Shelter Director Carolyn Rayford. Good says that AFG's programs, including its FYSB-funded Street Outreach Program (SOP), Basic Center Program (BCP), Transitional Living Program (TLP), and Maternity Group Home (MGH) Program, provide a "continuum of support and opportunities, so that participants can be safe, grow strong, and make positive choices." Deeply rooted in the community, AFG has a broad network of partners, including schools, businesses, faith-based organizations, mental-health providers, Wayne State University, the Detroit Public Library, the Detroit Health Department, and the Detroit Police Department—some of whose officers, including female officers, are volunteers and mentors at AFG. About 92 percent of the AFG staff are women. Good says that these staffers help participants realize that "women can play all the roles. Women can be leaders, collaborators, and friends."
Although the majority of AFG's clients or participants are from Detroit, they also serve portions of neighboring Wayne County. According to the 2020 Census, approximately 88 percent of Detroit's residents are people of color, 78 percent of whom are African-American. “About 95 percent of the girls and young women served by AFG are African American. We in Detroit are addressing decades of generational challenges," says Thomas, "including systemic inequities and poverty. Using our FYSB funds, AFG is fully engaged in supporting youth with safety and stability, encouraging them to graduate high school and pursue post-high school pathways, and combatting the drug and violence culture, which includes human trafficking, domestic violence or intimate partner violence, and gangs."
Young women and girls experiencing homelessness or who are at high risk also face distinct obstacles compared to young men and boys. Rayford says, “Boys can often hide in plain sight, while a girl who is walking about is more likely to be victimized.” Good adds, “Girls are also more likely to be adjudicated [as delinquent] for low-level behavioral offenses, like loitering, truancy, or underage possession of alcohol.” She attributes this occurrence to “a deep-seated cultural bias that we have to 'protect girls from themselves.'” AFG's participants, or clients may be pregnant, have one or more young children, have often experienced violence and the loss of family members through incarceration or death, often due to substance abuse. Many have mental health challenges, including bipolar disorder, depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and anxiety.
AFG provides therapeutic support, case management, peer support groups, development of peer leaders, drop-in services with food and clothing, bus tickets, medical tests, and harm reduction supplies. AFG is the only agency in the city with street-based services directed at victims and survivors of sex trafficking—work that has become more challenging as trafficking is more often occurring online, instead of on the street.
AFG’s TLP offers girls and young women support in learning life skills, including how to find and keep a job, and in pursuing educational goals. AFG's services reveal positive outcomes. In August and September of 2021, AFG offered a workforce development event that included a training day for participants, provision of interview clothes, and help with developing a resume a number of participants found jobs with local businesses, including a bank and the Humane Society. Rayford describes the program as "a phenomenal success.” AFG also provides aftercare for former AFG participants for at least 90 days. In 2021, 100 percent of former participants were stably housed at six months after exiting AFG's residential programs, and in the year after exiting the program, 78 percent of youth were employed, in school, or both. Previous participants often stay in touch with AFG as well. Some have become staff members, while others serve as volunteers or as mentors.
AFG recognizes its success is due in great part to the wide range of its community and national partners. These include Federal, state and local government agencies, national foundations, and state and local nonprofit organizations. Specifically, AFG partners with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the McGregor Fund. It also works with nonprofits such as the Ruth Ellis Center, which focuses on the needs of LGBTQ youth, Michigan Rehabilitation Services, the Detroit Parent Network, the National Runaway Safeline, and Vista Maria, a social services organization with a focus that includes youth in foster care and survivors of sex trafficking. AFG also belongs to the Michigan Network for Youth and Families.
AFG looks forward to the opening of its own on-site childcare center this spring. The center will support six to eight children of TLP and MGH program participants and provide training in parenting skills taught by early childhood professionals.
As with so many RHY grantees, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 presented serious challenges for AFG. Thomas says, "we didn't shut down at all. We just kept going." As Rayford explains, “AFG already had procedures in place to deal with inclement weather conditions," such as dangerously cold or hot temperatures. These procedures became the starting point for coping with the pandemic. "We were able to use office space to provide a quarantine area, with air mattresses, cribs, and toddler beds, as new arrivals were awaiting test results,” adds Rayford. She also noted that participants also did a "phenomenal job" of working with the staff to keep everyone safe. To its credit, from March to November 2020, the agency had no COVID-19 cases. Working with the Detroit Health Department, AFG was also among the first organizations to have a COVID-19 vaccination clinic, holding nine vaccination clinics in the past year.
In advising others who work with girls and young women experiencing homelessness, Good says, "girls have voices, and it behooves us to listen to them." Hearing what they have to say may suggest new initiatives and conferring with them also helps to build their leadership skills. After all, she says, "engaged youth grow to become engaged adults, building thriving communities."