Tami VandenBerg, entrepreneur and Executive Director of Well House
LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE
by Cynthia Price
Respect others. Respect yourself. Respect the property.
These three simple tenets guide the work of Well House, a collection of homes which house the formerly homeless in Grand Rapids.
Tami VandenBerg, the Executive Director of Well House, spoke to a large audience of NALS members and guests on Wednesday about the initiative, which got its start in the late 1970s.
NALS, the national association for legal support professionals, was founded in 1929 and has nine chapters in Michigan. The West Michigan chapter is among the most active, and draws in legal assistants and paralegals from large and small firms alike.
One of the organization’s major claims to fame is its certification program, which allows members to polish skills and excel at their jobs. Learn more at www.nals.org or www.nalsof
NALS of West Michigan also meets regularly for educational opportunities and programs of general interest, but Wednesday’s presentation was special: Well House has been selected as the NALS community service project for the 2015 holiday season.
“We were looking for an organization to focus on, and one day my boss mentioned Well House,” says Carolyn Field, President of NALS, referring to Sara Lachman of Miller Johnson, an avid Well House supporter.
The support could not come at a better time. Based on an assessment of urgent need, Well House has started its 19:1 campaign to raise enough money to buy more homes.
VandenBerg explained that the title “19:1” is based on two statistics: first, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does a “point in time” survey in January of each year to derive an estimate of how many people are homeless (as reported in the Dec. 2, 2015, Grand Rapids Legal News). VandenBerg says the 2015 survey, which encompasses people staying at shelters and encampments and other known homeless locations, indicated that there were 912 people homeless in the city of Grand Rapids — though, she comments, “It’s probably really more than ten times that.”
Always intrigued by data, VandenBerg sought information from the city about how many vacant houses exist, and found out the number was 19,262.
Therefore, the Well House board determined that increasing its capacity, primarily through purchasing homes from the Kent County Land Bank and fixing them up, would be of great benefit to the community.
VandenBerg explained that she had been a humanitarian and human rights activists for many years. “I began to realize that it’s virtually impossible for people to face a lot of their challenges without housing — drug addiction, family reunification, mental illness, to name a few. So I decided that housing was going to be my focus. Working with the homeless to get transitional and permanent supportive housing, I really learned a lot.
“One of the things I learned was that we weren’t necessarily listening to people who were living on the street when we came up with solutions. the other thing I learned was that we were very often not providing the basic needs that they were asking for, which was housing. We have a lot of social workers, all doing the best they can, a lot of classes, nutrition classes, parenting classes, budgeting classes, but we weren’t providing housing.”
Well House operates on the principles of Housing First. In the past, the overriding approach of the social services community to housing those without homes has been to provide them services and move them through transitional housing while addressing underlying problems which may have contributed to homelessness in the first place before giving them a place to live. Under the Housing First philosophy, which the U.S. HUD has adopted at least in part, people are moved into stable housing and address other issues after that.
VandenBerg heard about three years ago that Well House, which at the time encompassed three residences, was struggling. She had established two successful businesses, the Meanwhile Bar and the Pyramid Scheme, so she was in a position to take on the executive directorship. “Once my businesses were kind of stabilized and I didn’t really have to worry about income,” she said, “I was able to do something about this.”
Well House already had a noteworthy history, started by a Quaker named Marian Clements in 1977-1978. Clements was facing depression but was able to purchase a house for $350, and she eventually wound up with three houses in the Cass-Pleasant area of Southeast Grand Rapids. She opened her doors to other homeless people.
An innovator in living gently on the earth, Clements had composting toilets and started the tradition of growing food for residents. In the 1990s, community activists Judi Buchman and Richa (who has no surname) continued the complex’s ecological friendliness, including adding a greenhouse of sorts, but it was difficult to raise the money to carry on.
So VandenBerg agreed to work on it and has met with great success. The number of houses has now grown to 11, and VandenBerg is proud to say that they have moved at least 87 people from homelessness to housing.
Though Well House is willing, even anxious, to accept those who have been turned down by other providers (about 71% of current residents have), the people who live there do pay rent. VandenBerg says it is a misperception that most people on the street have no money, but the amount Well House charges is far less than even the most affordable market-rate units.
Says Roberta King, the Vice President for PR and Marketing at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, “I've been a board member and chair for three years. In that time I've seen Well House grow and establish itself as the voice of the Housing First movement. Director Tami VandenBerg is passionate and fierce in her leadership.
“It isn't easy to house people who have lived on the streets for a long time — they're a fragile population. But, by meeting them where they're at — not trying to make them fit into a model — we are successfully housing people. Funds given to our 19:1 campaign will help us purchase and renovate abandoned houses and take people off of the streets and into affordable and permanent housing.”
Other board members include Julio Villalobos, Community Programs Coordinator, Program Puente-Spectrum Health Healthier Communities, and Brent Geers of Geers Law.
Well House not only provides housing, it serves as a supportive community for those who live there. People need to follow the three tenets of respect in order to make it work, and staff provides what VandenBerg calls “mediation” when there are problems. Funding also allows them to hire some of the residents to help with the work to maintain Well House.
“Leaving people on the streets long term has consequences,” VandenBerg says. “Data is showing a reduction in life expectancy of 15 to 25 years for people who are homeless, and it’s so hard on their health, not to mention their being more vulnerable to crime... I just find that incredibly disturbing.
“I’m not saying that it’s easy but I am saying that we need to do something about it.”