Local homeless shelter director aims to connect with student community
Sipping a cup of coffee, Ryan Griffus smiles as he nonchalantly recounts the story of a violent homeless man he had been forced to tackle to the ground the night before.
Being the executive director of the Isabella County Restoration House, he handles situations like that on a daily basis and it doesn’t bother him — he knows exactly how it feels to be homeless.
As a child, Griffus lived in an unsafe household. In an environment where many of the adults suffered from addiction, he in turn suffered from their horrible abuse and neglect. When he was 12 years old, he knew it was no longer safe for him to live there, and he began his six-year battle of on and off homelessness.
“The level of uncertainty and instability just hangs with you, and it never leaves you,” Griffus said. “Now I’m telling you that today, as a 36-year-old grown man. It happened to me 20 years ago, and I still have that mindset. It never leaves you.”
Growing up, Griffus said he was an “outgoing and charismatic kid," and from the outside looking in, no one could see the all-star athlete and homecoming king often didn’t know where he would be sleeping for the night. He recalls spending many nights crashing on the couches of generous friends, or, when he wasn’t so fortunate, sleeping in his car, parked in an empty field.
When he was 18 years old, Griffus applied to CMU assuming that he wouldn’t be accepted. Four years later, he completed his degree and was determined to put his experience to use, helping other people. After working for the state of Michigan as a Child Protective Services Investigator for ten years, he decided he wanted to do more to really help those people who were suffering, which is how he ended up at the ICRH.
The ICRH is a seasonal and rotational homeless shelter, meaning its nighttime shelter location changes from week to week. Although the organization does not affiliate with any religion, Griffus said that churches are almost always the locations willing to be a shelter.
During the day, those in need of shelter can go to the William J. Strickler Nonprofit Center, located at 1114 W. High Street, which opens at 1p.m. There are several other programs in the building that offer support to those in need, such as Clothing Inc., which provides free clothing, Community Compassion Network, a food pantry, and Mount Pleasant Community Church Care Store, which provides hygienic and household goods for those in need.
During the shelter’s 2016-2017 season, they served 153 individuals, 39 of whom were children. So far this season, Griffus said they have provided shelter for 185 individuals, and roughly 60 children. From the CMU and Mount Pleasant community, about 1,500 people volunteered in the day and night shelters.
“It’s bittersweet,” Griffus said about the number of people the shelter has served.
Three CMU students from the Child Development, Sociology and Social work departments serve as Griffus’ interns this semester. He said he aims to give his interns “meaningful work” that makes a difference and helps them decide if they really want to work in human services.
Jasen Harris is a Paw Paw senior who interned for Griffus this year. He said his work with the ICRH has indeed proven to him that he wants to follow the human service career path, which he has "somewhat known" for a long time.
"I've always had a passion for hunger and homeless related issues," Harris said. "But learning from people like Ryan, it's fueled my inspiration and passion, and made me realize that I can also make an impact on the issue."
Jessie Black, a Milford, Connecticut senior, began interning for Griffus in the fall as part of a requirement for her social work major. She said it has given her "an endless amount of creative opportunity." This semester, she created an on campus RSO, the Isabella County Restoration House Student Organization, which she said "serves as a liaison between the shelter and the university."
When asked what their favorite part about their internship is, both Harris and Black said they love how much freedom they're given. All of the tasks they work on are things they feel are useful to helping them move forward in the careers they want.
“I love working with students, they bring so much to the table,” Griffus said. “They have a perspective of untapped knowledge base and life experience that is incredibly valuable to what we do.”
Other students frequently volunteer or help ICRH in some way as well. Various student groups have come together over the past year to raise money and collect essential goods the shelter needs, and many students in HDF 219 come in to spend time at the day shelter, even after they’ve earned all of their required volunteer hours. Griffus even said that he and Coach Bonamego have had the football team come to the shelter on several occasions to help move furniture.
One student group Griffus would like to be more involved with is the Greek community. ICRH applied for Greek Week this year, and although they were not the chosen organization, Griffus said he truly hopes to have a further dialogue with the Greek community on campus. He believes that the community holds a lot of power and influence, and that partnering with them could mean great things for the shelter.
When asked about the future of ICRH, Griffus said he wants to bring as many resources to the people in the shelter as possible, such as counseling, employment and transportation services. He said that in his experience, bringing services directly to individuals is much more effective in finding out exactly what they need to be helped.
“If you would have told me that there were so many places in the community where I could get help, I probably wouldn’t have gone there and said, ‘Hey, I’m homeless!’ because I was embarrassed and angry,” Griffus said. “So that’s why I try to bring opportunities to the people, to help them as much as I can.”