Corktown Health Embraces Continuous Adaptation to Expand Access to Stigma-Free Health Care for Michigan’s LGBTQ+ Community July 19, 2022

In a Nutshell

What: An overview of Corktown Health’s evolution from a grassroots nonprofit to a leading service provider for Southeast Michigan’s LGBTQ+ community, achieved in part by the organization’s constant adaptation to client needs and the alignment of facility plans with its growth goals.
Sector: Health care
Location: Detroit, MI (Corktown)
IFF Support: $1.425 million loan closed in 2018, Stronger Nonprofits Initiative in 2020, financial feasibility study in 2022
IFF Staff Lead: Robin Toewe, Director of Real Estate Solutions – Michigan
Through Corktown Health, more than 5,000 people annually have access to a full suite of high-quality medical and supportive services, while 25+ physicians are trained each year to provide culturally competent care to members of the LGBTQ+ community

When a small group of individuals banded together in 1986 to establish Health Emergency Lifeline Programs (HELP) in Detroit, their goal was simple. Having watched family and friends devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic reach the end of their lives with nowhere to turn for support, HELP would provide members of the community with the resources they needed free from any stigma.

Much has changed in the 36 years since then, yet the nonprofit remains as indispensable now as it was then. Today, the nonprofit – now known as Corktown Health – provides a full suite of medical and supportive services designed to bridge health disparities among a population that continues to face significant barriers to quality care, serving more than 5,000 people each year.

And as the organization celebrates the fifth anniversary this year of Corktown Health Center – the State of Michigan’s first medical home dedicated to providing high-quality, affirming health care to the LGBTQ+ community – it’s finalizing plans to double its impact by establishing a second location in Oakland County while continuing to roll out new services like dental care.

As impressive as what Corktown Health has accomplished is the way in which it has done so, evolving constantly to stay attuned to and meet the changing needs of the LGBTQ+ community.

Adapting and growing to meet changing needs

In its earliest days, Corktown Health almost exclusively provided financial and medication support to individuals with HIV/AIDS as they approached the end of their lives. As antiretroviral drugs became available and their efficacy increased, however, the nonprofit recognized that what it was providing to clients was no longer sufficient. With clients able to live longer, fuller lives after contracting the virus, their needs changed, necessitating the organization’s first major step forward in its evolution.

“The early story of our growth has a lot to do with the improvement in treatment for people living with HIV,” explains Corktown Health President and CEO Anthony Williams. “As medication made HIV more of a chronic illness, we found that our clients had other needs that weren’t being met. For example, offering behavioral health services addressed an outstanding need and was our first foray into reimbursable services. When that was a success, it prompted us to further assess the landscape to determine what other services people were looking for that they weren’t able to access.”

Among those offerings were employment support and housing assistance, both of which influenced clients’ ability to thrive after contracting the virus.

“The progression of the illness and stigma associated with it, sometimes affected employment and housing stability resulting in significant financial challenges,” says Williams. “There’s a hierarchy of needs, and if basic needs are taken care of, then you can focus on more elevated challenges in your life, which in this case was managing HIV for the long term.”

While expanding its service offering and client base, the nonprofit leased a series of spaces before finally settling into a 3,000-square-foot space in a larger facility in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood in 2005, providing the organization with room to grow. Over the next decade, the nonprofit steadily expanded its space – leasing additional square footage in the facility each time its capacity increased until occupying all 22,000 square feet.

Still working to expand its service offerings, the organization also began planning for the next significant step forward in its evolution. Community engagement efforts identified the need for an LGBTQ+-focused health clinic where services fragmented elsewhere in the community could be brought together under one roof.

“We went out to the community and held town hall meetings in different parts of the city,” says Williams. “What we heard was that LGBTQ+-focused medical services were needed, from general primary care to very specific kinds of care like affirming transgender health services.”

Amplifying impact through facility acquisition

With the help of a $1.425 million loan from IFF that accelerated the nonprofit’s ability to increase its capacity, the organization purchased the facility it had been renting and proceeded with renovations to establish Corktown Health Center in 2017. Doing so enabled the nonprofit to provide primary care, behavioral health services, comprehensive HIV care and treatment, cancer screening, health insurance navigation, and more – ensuring that members of the community could access a full suite of health and health-related services designed specifically for their needs in one place.

Our goal is for every member of the LGBTQ+ community in Michigan to have access to affirming, supportive care

Aside from the direct benefits accrued by patients visiting the clinic, the renovated facility provided a venue to ensure that the organization’s LGBTQ+-friendly approach to care could grow beyond the walls of the building itself to amplify the nonprofit’s impact. Through a partnership with Wayne State University’s School of Medicine, the health center became a community rotation site for physician residents and medical students, helping train the next generation of health care providers in culturally competent care for the LGBTQ+ community.

“Our goal is for every member of the LGBTQ+ community in Michigan to have access to affirming, supportive care, but we were only one location,” says Williams. “By opening the clinic and using it as a training site, we were able to increase our impact tenfold by teaching physicians how to provide the type of care that our population is looking for and to take those lessons with them as they progress in their careers.”

In addition to enabling Corktown Health to expand its services and impact, the acquisition of the facility provided financial and operational benefits that have set the stage for another evolution in the organization’s growth cycle – bolstered by the organization’s participation in the Detroit cohort of IFF’s Stronger Nonprofits Initiative (SNI), a program funded by JPMorgan Chase.

By purchasing its building, Corktown Health was able to fix its costs and eliminate the possibility of rent increases, providing the organization with long-term financial stability. And, by renovating the facility to open the health center and generate additional revenue through reimbursable services, Corktown Health was able to reinvest net income into service delivery to provide care to patients with no income and no insurance while also building a cash reserve. That, combined with the organization’s participation in SNI, a financial feasibility study being completed by IFF’s real estate team in Michigan, and an American Rescue Plan grant provided by Oakland County, MI, has positioned Corktown Health to move forward with plans for a second health center in the Detroit metro area, further decreasing barriers to stigma-free care for Southeast Michigan’s LGBTQ+ community.

“Our goal is to replicate everything we’re currently offering at Corktown Health’s Detroit site at the second location, which will make it easier to reach patients who might not otherwise be able to get to our existing facility,” says Williams. “SNI was a tremendous benefit to my team and the organization. It affirmed some of the things we were doing well, helped us identify some of the areas we needed to strengthen, and look at our operations in new ways. It’s been especially helpful in how we handle internal reporting and manage our budget. Partners like IFF are essential as a nonprofit organization navigating growth.”

SNI was a tremendous benefit to my team and the organization. It affirmed some of the things we were doing well, helped us identify some of the areas we needed to strengthen, and look at our operations in new ways. It’s been especially helpful in how we handle internal reporting and manage our budget. Partners like IFF are essential as a nonprofit organization navigating growth.

Expected to open early in 2024, Corktown Health’s second location will build on a proven model and incorporate all that the organization has learned about adapting to the needs of its clients in the past four decades. And, if past is prologue, it will set the stage for continued growth defined by the organization’s ability to make small changes over time that add up to big impact for Michigan’s LGBTQ+ community.

Read about additional nonprofit facility projects in Michigan