G-Sync: With housing and heart, Well House proves homelessness can become thing of the past

Since 2013, Well House, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit, has helped 103 homeless individuals find permanent, safe and low-cost housing in the city. Publisher Tommy Allen reflects on this milestone and where the organization, and the entire city, goes from here.
In society we, on rare occasion, get an opportunity to do something so bold that it ends up saving the lives of many. But often these bold acts start with a hunch and a leader to turn the course of events from a negative to a real win.

As I reflected on my past, I suddenly landed at another period of time when a group acted boldly and changed the course of people’s lives.  

During the AIDS plague of the 1980s, members of the U.S. never thought too seriously at first as to how a virus clearly targeting gay men could leap beyond the confines we had long held as truth.  

But the turning point in the AIDS crisis emerged as many people began to recognize  the faces of the infected as family members and friends. It is a sobering lesson —  but one that I am reminded of again and again over time — to learn as an individual that what happens to one can often spill over into other areas once thought to be safe from harm.

The game-changing tactics that many folks in our major cities used in the 1980s to get our attention harnessed not just our fears of what silence produces, but also engaged people’s anger that this cannot happen here. When no help from the government appeared, these people took to the streets as they took to scientific study to fund the research needed to help create a solution.

I honestly believe this same roll-up-your-sleeves, grassroots approach is where many cities are today as we try and ideate our way through the landscape of our new century, past old models that are failing, to design a better solution. Change, as they say, is hard. 
One group in our region that is moving the community forward through place-changing activities is Well House — a Housing First model currently underway in Grand Rapids’ southeast neighborhood.  

When Tami Vandenberg became Well House’s executive director in 2013, the implementation of this little known Housing First model — a policy created by New York’s Dr. Sam Tsemberis in the 1990s that aims to move individuals who are homeless immediately into their own housing, as opposed to a shelter or transitional housing program — had only a handful of successes around the country. 

Recently, the news of Well House passing a historic milestone of serving 103 individuals who have been moved off the streets and into safe, permanent, low-cost housing since January of 2013 is enough to give me pause to consider what comes next for Well House, but also for us. 

“When I first started to apply the Housing First model to our area, I will admit I was not sure it would work,” says VandenBerg. “I had a strong hunch it would work. But again, this model had not been applied here yet, so who knew what we could predict.”

Well House had two paths they could have followed. One, they could just labor quietly using models popular in the region. Or, two, VandenBerg along with her team made up of staff, volunteers and her board could enact a bold new model that aimed to end homelessness by immediately connecting individuals with housing in the community. (They took the bold path.)

Once a person’s housing is stabilized at Well House, then the individual is free to work on other areas of their life and on their timetable — a very radical approach for this region and a program with very little data to support if it would be effective here.

Now armed with solid data to support Well House’s housing first mission, including triple digit success, 13 homes and five vacant lots (many purchased via the Kent County Land Bank Authority), VandenBerg has set her sights on what comes next.

For starters, Well House now has created critically important data to support and prove that Tsemberis’ Housing First model actually works splendidly.

“We need to move our dialogue as to how can we move this program to scale,” says VandenBerg. “But we also need to engage around those topics as to what are the root causes of homelessness in our community.”

She wonders if we have the will as a community to drill down on the complexities of the topic of what is considered affordable housing: Can we leverage our city’s assets for the greater good, and how can we create meaningful dialogue about racial equity and its relationship to housing stress in our city?  

“Most people that are homeless in Grand Rapids are in the situation because there is not enough low-cost housing,” says VandeBerg, “The average one-bedroom apartment is $700 to $800 per month, plus utilities. Someone working full-time for minimum wage earns $1300 each month before taxes. They would have to work 79 hours per week in order for housing costs to be at the recommended 30 percent of total income.”
But even this old idea of paying 30 percent of one’s income is becoming a thing of the past, as many cities are now reporting their citizens in places like New York City are paying more than 50 percent of their income to cover their rent. If Grand Rapids moves to this new benchmark, as other cities are presently, then we are going to see a whole host of problems that will cause even more of a housing crisis.

Locally, Well House since January of 2013 has received 432 applications. However, for every one person they are able to welcome, three others are turned away due to lack of space. When we look at the numbers from the Greater Grand Rapids Coalition to End Homelessness, we know that Kent County has approximately 900 people living on the streets and in shelters on any giving night. (See 2015 HUD Point In Time).

For if we can begin to address this third-rail, touchy list of topics now before a crisis, maybe then we as a community can play a role in solving what almost every major city in the U.S. is presently experiencing. Maybe then we can enact a new set of bold moves looking at those topics that directly contribute to our crisis and, in doing so, help to usher in a truly workable solution for all. Doing the heavy lifting now around these once untouchable topics helps lessen the threat of housing stress before it becomes an emergency.

This ability of our community to rally around complex topics like housing is how we got to the Great Housing Strategies plan that came out of City Hall in 2015. The dialogue on this topic has also led to inspiring other housing agencies and organizations to rethink how they do what they do, resulting in a host of new programs delivering new successes for our city. The cascading impact for good is indeed happening here and brings proof that being bold is what is driving a large portion of this trend.

We at Rapid Growth celebrate with Well House and all the other organizations who are laboring to lessen the sting of this situation and other life-altering events facing the citizens of the city.  But we also need to be reminded that while Well House has been able to stabilize 103 lives, we still have, on an average night, 900 people who are homeless in Kent County. We can and should do better. And yes it can be done.

Going back to the start, maybe all we need to see our desired change is for all of us to come out into the light of day on the housing situations we are experiencing as a society. AIDS funding for research would have never begun had we not raised our collective voices, understanding that what happens to one can impact the whole of society. 

As Well House celebrates this milestone, it is my wish that it will challenge us to not get complacent with our success. Maybe we will view this as an opportunity to look at other models in our world that may have a positive impact on a region as we explore a diverse set of topics, from what does inclusionary zoning do for a community to how land trusts can save neighborhoods to the reason why “it takes a village” model is still a good one to create honest dialogue within our city. 

We can do things quietly as we have always done them, or we can choose on those rare occasions when the situation presents itself to be bold. I vote that we go boldly into our future armed with a hunch (and a pile of data) so that we can achieve greatness for all and right here where we live.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Publisher and Lifestyle Editor
For a finely curated list of events to consider this week, please visit G-Sync Events: Let's Do This!

Image Notes: All images are from Tommy Allen's archive except the image of Tami VandenBerg with the board of Well House. It was provided by the organization. (Not pictured: board member Theodore Janga)
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