Many of us are wired in such a way that when we see a problem in society, we view it from the standpoint of privilege and attempt to solve it. (Cue the applause.)
What if that model was suddenly upended and you had to rethink your path in the pursuit of a new way? After 30 years, Well House
, a place where ending homelessness is the goal, received a new formula for change at the closing of 2012. By implementing something different, Well House is impacting our community for the better.
Well House is the brainchild of Grand Rapids community activist Marian Clements. The organization had endured many ups and downs, including multiple run-ins with the City over Clements' vision of providing a place for simple living that clashed with civic codes. For instance, Clements kept goats on the property, and did not like to use electricity.
After Clements' passed away from breast cancer in 1997, others continued the work of Well House. The biggest shift to date is the hiring of Executive Director Tami VandenBerg. She and her newly formed board of directors, comprised of local leaders across the experience spectrum, are now ushering in an exciting chapter for Well House.
First, they would need the three homes that make up the Well House vacant, so they moved the existing tenants, some of whom had been living there for a long time, into new residences elsewhere. "We had to start with a clean slate," VandenBerg says. "We had a plan that started with a new set of guiding principals that simplified our approach to the problem of homelessness."
Adopting the oft repeated "low demand, harm reduction" mantra, it became clear as I toured Well House that unlike other facilities I have visited over the years, the 12 rooms were upending the model where homelessness is taken care of by others in a temporary way.
"It's definitely a paradigm shift as we purposefully adopted a solution-based model," says VandenBerg. "We decided not to complicate it more than it needs to be, so we start by treating our tenants as adults, offering a level of respect for those seeking a place to live."
The residents of Well House must pay a monthly fee as stipulated by their lease, thus providing a basis of how one will live once they decide to move on. By meeting the obligations in a safe space, the tenant is able to focus on getting on their feet, taking as much time as they need to do so.
The homes are broken down into three distinct categories. The Admin House contains offices, tenant rooms, and an urban greenhouse. The Quiet House features three bedrooms with a laundry room and a comfy common area for activities like watching movies and the Social House with its four bedrooms is where the current 12 residents often gather as a group, preparing and sharing a communal meal in the large kitchen. This large dining room is also a place where one can plug in a guitar to entertain the other tenants with song.
Reggie, one of the tenants, remarked how much the group pulls together to help each other. This is part of Well House's beautiful mission -- to provide space so the residents can self-organize, helping each other achieve their personal goals.
"People here are very eager to participate. And we really try to have dinner together, " says Reggie, who is also the part-time Well House repairman. "We also know some may not be as fortunate, so it is not uncommon to extend an invite to dinner to another tenant who might be low on resources that day."
Larry, another resident, moves me with his story, but also alarms me with the amount of medical issues he experiences, including more than 40 radiation treatments endured over the last 14 months.
Any one of us would be hard pressed to find a reason to smile in this situation, but Larry's laundry list of medical issues, visually backed up by the mountain of prescription bottles on his bedside table, has not broken his spirit because Well House affords him the opportunity to bring stability to his life, keeping him off the street.
As I exit the house, I ask my guide, recently hired Well House Housing Specialist Joi Dupler, if it was a struggle to check that gnawing urge of privilege to ”fix it.”
"That was one of the hardest things for me to let go of since arriving," says Dupler. "Well House meets people where they are, but also will only offer up help when asked by a tenant."
In the coming weeks, Well House will begin another new chapter as they launch a large-scale urban farming initiative, not unlike Detroit's Earthworks. Residents as well as staffers will work to produce food for Well House, but also for area restaurants.
"This is an exciting venture as it will bring fresh, whole foods to our tenants," says VandenBerg. "It will also allow us to share everything from seedlings to actual produce with our neighbors, too."
VandenBerg, who views this community outreach as essential to building stable neighborhoods, is also looking for more properties to add to the Well house portfolio of homes. She hopes someday to open additional chapters in our city's other neighborhoods.
"Our end game is always to get people off the street," says VandenBerg. "The answer to homelessness is still housing. That is what we do here."
VandenBerg is also an entrepreneur, running two establishments (The Meanwhile Bar and Pyramid Scheme) with her brother, Jeff. Prior to this, she worked in the field of housing, often-managing $4-5 million in HUD funds.
Listening to VandenBerg share plans for the future, it is clear that she too has found a home at Well House.
The Future Needs All of Us.
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Editor's Note: On Thursday, Feb. 28, The Meanwhile Bar will be hosting a benefit for the Well House Urban Farming Initiative. A reception will take place from 5 - 8 p.m. with appetizers and information about Well House. A portion of the entire night's sales will be donated to Well House.