Government, Nonprofits, and Real Estate

Well House looks to the future, hopes to end homelessness

Tami VandenBerg takes over as executive director.

March 1, 2013
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Well House has one goal: to end homelessness in Kent County.

That’s not an easy problem to tackle, given the persistent challenges that contribute to homelessness, but new Executive Director Tami VandenBerg is determined to work toward that goal.

“The number one issue is the affordability of housing,” VandenBerg said. “Wages and benefits — every type of benefit — just hasn’t kept up with the rising housing cost. … Most of the people we see receive $600 or less per month. That is a big issue.

“There is a fair amount of subsidized housing in town, but a lot of them have very strict guidelines on felonies, even if it’s marijuana in 1982 — lots of folks will not see past that. Those are the two major barriers.”

According to the Coalition to End Homelessness, 44 percent of renters in Kent County can’t afford a two-bedroom unit at a fair market rate, which is $746 per month. Additionally, the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness reported that, in 2011, Michigan had an estimated 1,825 homeless families on a single night, with providers serving four times their bed capacity over the course of the year.

“We try to keep the rooms as affordable as possible,” said VandenBerg. “We see our model as a realistic solution. If we can charge $250, that is less than 50 percent of their income and that includes everything — gas, electric and water, and some food from donations.”

After 35 years of serving the homeless population, first with crisis housing and then more recently with permanent residences, Well House was struggling to keep its own doors open. Surprisingly, the timing couldn’t have been better. VandenBerg, co-owner of The Pyramid Scheme and Meanwhile Bar, was just setting her sights on creating a new nonprofit that would focus on homelessness.

She previously worked for the Salvation Army’s Homeless Assistance Program and served on Well House’s board.

“I was looking for a new project and I really missed working on housing,” she said. “It was such a meaningful thing to do. I love my businesses — they are really fun and they are meaningful in a different way, but I really missed that. … I thought, ‘Well, why start something brand new if there is already an organization that has 501(c)(3) status, has a similar mission to what I was thinking and has some assets?’ Not to mention decades of assisting people and all this work that so many of us put into it. I reached out to them and very quickly they handed it over.”

VandenBerg has several plans to revive and expand Well House.

Well House currently owns three properties on the southeast side of Grand Rapids in the 600 block of Cass Street. Combined, the houses have 10 tenant rooms, which are currently serving 12 residents. Residents have access to all three of the houses, as well as the surrounding grounds and a greenhouse and art studio on the property. Residents share the common spaces of the houses and live together as roommates.

“Anyone that we felt could maybe get into another housing situation, either Dwelling Place or the Grand Rapids Housing Commission or some other subsidized housing, we tried to direct them there,” she said. “We wanted to serve people that could not access their housing because of maybe a mistake they made a couple of decades ago, or something that was on their record, or whatever the reason. Since we have so few rooms, we wanted them to be really targeted.”

Most of the current residents also have a disability of some sort and are receiving some type of income through veterans benefits, Social Security or from a part-time job.

VandenBerg plans to increase the number of residents by purchasing additional properties. She is working with the Kent County Land Bank to accomplish this and believes the current housing market will work in the organization’s favor.

She also plans to create a large-scale urban farm that will span at least six to eight city lots and help provide food for the residents and the community.

“I just looked at what was there, and there’s a greenhouse and a legacy of growing food. So I hired two part-time urban farmers, one that’s been doing urban farming for 30 years in the neighborhood and another one who did an internship in a mushroomery.

“The urban farming project is going to consist of growing a wide variety of food for the people that live in the houses and some to share with neighbors, and then we are growing mushrooms and garlic specifically for restaurants in the area. We’ve already been in contact with some area farm-to-table restaurants.”

She hopes the art studio will allow for the production of products that can be sold, as well.

Vandenberg said some residents look at Well House as a temporary home while they work toward getting their own place; others are happy to remain at the residence indefinitely. She noted that each resident has different goals and Well House will work with each person on attaining those goals. It provides resources and referrals to help residents in whatever way needed.

Additionally, residents are given the opportunity to provide services to Well House, ranging from gardening duties to maintenance and repair work, and Vandenberg hopes that she will be able to compensate residents for these services, essentially creating jobs for them to help supplement their income.

“There’s been a big effort to increase the amount of permanent housing, but it hasn’t quite happened like many of us were hoping,” she said. “A lot of our community funds are still going to emergency housing, which is important, but what is even more important is getting people into permanent housing.

“Empty out the missions: That’s the goal,” she said.

The Meanwhile Bar will host a benefit for Well House Urban Farming Initiative from 5-8 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 28, with a portion of the night’s sales going to Well House.

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