Inside Track: Finding his calling
John Glover uses experience growing up in poverty to serve those experiencing homelessness.
John Glover said his experience growing up in poverty is what propelled him to direct service work for those in a similar position.
Living in poverty in the South Bronx during the 1960s and 1970s was as bad as one could imagine, he said.
He grew up in public housing, and his family experienced “everything in the book” — poverty, hunger insecurity, homelessness, substance abuse and more.
“You name it, my family went through it,” said Glover, the executive director of Well House, a nonprofit that works to provide “safe, affordable housing” to those who need it.
Besides that, he had to deal with the hostility of growing up mixed-race during a time and place that did not welcome such people. Glover’s mother was “clearly” Latina, and his was father was “clearly” African-American. Despite common belief, those communities did not always get along, he said, and his family had to isolate themselves.
As children, he said he and his siblings had a rough time growing up. They would be physically attacked, and his sister often fought to defend them.
“All of those issues are real to me. They’re lived experiences,” Glover said. “I’ve only now begun to be able to talk about them somewhat dispassionately because it’s important for the people that I’m working with to understand that I know what they’re going through.”
Shame is a big issue in these communities, he said. Many families, his included, often feel embarrassed they need help, feeling “the do-gooders are essentially throwing them their spare time and spare change and spare charity.”
“It’s important for them to know that there are some people who know what they’re actually going through and have lived it” — he paused midsentence, choking up — “and what they’re giving you is genuine.”
He said it also is important to remember the dynamic of relationships between clients and staff.
“A lot of us have built careers because these people are in crisis,” Glover said.
“It’s important to balance the fact that we’re here to help and recognize that (if not) for their need, we wouldn’t be here. So, we owe something to them as well, and it becomes an exchange.”
At age 10, his mother brought Glover and his siblings to her home of Puerto Rico to give them an opportunity for more pleasant childhood memories, which the “gentler” culture allowed, he said.
That experience really changed his perspective: “You can have a life that’s not about violence, not about abject poverty, not about one-upmanship.”
They stayed for five years and then returned to the Bronx, where he worked and finished school.
At age 16, he took his first job selling hot dogs at a hot dog stand. He faked his birth certificate to claim he was age 18 so he could work. He then worked as a waiter in a chain restaurant.
“I think that was the beginning of a realization that I enjoyed engaging with people,” he said.
Once he began his professional career, the human services field always was something he unconsciously gravitated toward.
“As I look back on it, it’s all connected. It’s a realization that the populations we try to serve … are the populations I’ve been trying to serve my whole life,” Glover said.
“My circumstances propelled me in the direction that I took, and I’ve only recently become aware that that’s what happened.”
He held several jobs in the industry over the years, including positions with the Alcoholism Council of New York, the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies and the Center for New York City Affairs at his alma mater, a private university called The New School.
Glover was the first person in his immediate family to attend college. He began his degree at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, part of the City University of New York system. He returned to that college after earning a master’s degree and taught for 10 years as an adjunct professor, which he said was "one of the best experiences" of his life. He would still be teaching if he could afford to live on a teacher’s salary in New York.
In his latest New York-based job, he traveled all over the country for School Food FOCUS, working to better the quality of food served in schools. It was high-level work that involved policy discussions and meetings in conference rooms and touring schools, where he saw the “best possible image” and met staff and students who were trained to “say the right things.”
“I found myself feeling very much like a fraud,” Glover said.
Simply working in the field was not enough for him, he realized. He needed to see whom he was helping firsthand.
“At a certain point, you don’t see the end user anymore,” Glover said. “And clearly, that’s what motivates me in my work — is to be able to see the change that’s happening as a result of the effort that’s being put into place.”
He said it’s hard for him to say whether he prefers direct service exclusively for the people he’s helping, or if it also somehow fulfills his own desire to serve a “legitimate purpose.”
“But clearly, it speaks to the populations that I am connected to, which on some level is a little selfish, but I’m OK with that,” he said, laughing.
In 2016, Glover left that national job with a decent salary to serve as director of the Open Door Program at Fort Street Presbyterian Church of Detroit, where he worked in development and oversaw the annual distribution of $2.5 million worth of goods and services.
He began the executive director position at Well House in Grand Rapids earlier this month.
Glover’s best friend sent him a link to the job posting. Having had recently begun the job in Detroit, he was initially not interested in moving again, but after learning about Well House, he knew it would be a perfect fit.
With his own poverty experiences, Glover said he strongly believes in the organization’s “housing first” model, an approach that seeks to house people experiencing homelessness as quickly as possible, then working on other issues as needed.
“I thought that model was phenomenal,” he said.
“Families that are struggling are struggling for lots of reasons. They can’t even begin to address those problems if they’re in the streets.”
He credits Tami VandenBerg, the organization’s former executive director, for cementing that model as part of Well House.
While Glover said it’s not possible to “fill Tami VandenBerg’s shoes,” he will use the same “energy and passion that built the organization up” to move the organization into a sustainability-focused phase, which is something he said he does well.
Under VandenBerg, the organization went from owning three houses to 15 in five years, which he said requires a mindset that takes a lot of energy.
“Maintaining that over time is a whole different ball game,” he said.
Glover said the organization will continue its work toward growth, however.
“But there has to be a balance because you can grow yourself into oblivion if you don’t manage it properly,” he said. “That’s the next challenge — is to make sure we can manage what we have now before we continue to add more houses.”
In any case, with the increasing cost of housing, he said property acquisition is becoming more difficult, so the organization will need to leverage the best opportunities.
“It’s not about more houses,” Glover said. “It’s about housing more people.
“In the end, if we can eliminate, or bring … the number of people experiencing homelessness to as close to zero as possible, that’s the goal. Everything else is just the framework from which you accomplish that.”