After graduating from college, Tami VandenBerg moved south and worked for AmeriCorps, where she worked with reintegrating former psychiatric patients into society. Courtesy The Meanwhile Bar
When Tami VandenBerg moved back home, she had the drive to turn Grand Rapids into a great place to live for everybody. Twenty years later, the owner of two clubs and former executive director of Well House has left a serious mark on the community, but she’s still not done.
VandenBerg said she always had an interest in serving people on the margins. A product of Wyoming, she moved out of the suburbs to go to Calvin College, now Calvin University.
When she graduated from Calvin College in 1997, downtown Grand Rapids was not the hub of activity it is today. VandenBerg approximated there were more vacant properties than active properties, whether housing or business-related.
Downtown did, however, have a thriving underground scene, and VandenBerg said she misses some of the old clubs that inspired her to start her own. One in particular, named the Enclave, was an old, “pretty treacherous,” venue on the corner of Oakes Street and South Division Avenue, behind where The Pyramid Scheme is today.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of Calvin students couldn’t wait to leave Grand Rapids, which was depressing to VandenBerg. Being from a place where people came to learn but were excited to leave once they’d graduated did not inspire her to stay either.
After watching her college friends leave one by one and not knowing what she wanted to do after graduation, VandenBerg decided to work for AmeriCorps in Lafayette, Louisiana, where she worked with reintegrating former psychiatric patients into society.
The reintegration process was difficult because people were terrified to leave their homes or wherever they had been placed. AmeriCorps put together a drop-in center run for and by people who had been in psychiatric facilities.
While down south, VandenBerg developed her “extreme” passion for trying to end homelessness. She said a couple of patients would come into the drop-in center and immediately fall asleep, which wasn’t allowed under their guidelines.
“I just asked them, ‘Do you feel like you need your medication changed,’” VandenBerg said. “And this one guy said, ‘I don’t have anywhere to live. I walk the streets all night because it’s not safe to sleep outside … and during the day, I try to find places to sleep inside.’”
VandenBerg said she always loved working with marginalized people, but until her experience with homeless people, she didn’t know which of the multiple angles of marginalization she should try to tackle. Her experience with homeless people made her realize access to housing is a critical human rights issue.
“What possible issue in your life could you address if you don’t have anywhere to live? All you can focus on is trying to find a safe place to sleep, trying to hold onto your belongings, trying not to get beat up, or raped or hit by a car … and you have no time to remotely think about anything else,” VandenBerg said.
It was a tough decision, but ultimately, VandenBerg chose to return to Grand Rapids because she wanted to be closer to her family. She sent her résumé to every organization in Grand Rapids working with homeless people.
For VandenBerg, it wasn’t just about having a career, since working in homelessness doesn’t make a lot of money to begin with. It was about using her time and energy in the most effective way to help the greatest amount of people in the shortest amount of time, she said.
“Basically, I took everything I learned from the prior 15 years and all the research I did, and I tried to weasel my way into every national conference I could and put together everything that I saw personally worked with us and what the research showed worked the best,” Vandenberg said.
When she heard Well House was struggling to keep its doors open in 2013, she jumped at the opportunity to put her housing strategy into action.
“It was very not the status quo,” VandenBerg said. “It was very meeting people where they’re at and putting housing above everything and not telling people they need to fix their lives before they get housing.”
VandenBerg, herself, is a massive advocate for the “housing first” strategy to end homelessness, believing people can’t reasonably be expected to stop using drugs or alcohol, have all their mental issues treated and have a full-time job without an address, a shower or a roof over their heads.
The biggest challenge VandenBerg said she has faced during all of her housing work was combating cruelty and stereotypes toward homeless people, not just from regular people, but from people in the service industry.
VandenBerg recalled a conversation she had with a group of service providers that declared they wouldn’t put anybody in a house if they were using drugs.
“I would love to see only people who have never touched a drug get housing. I think we would have about five people in housing in this city,” VandenBerg said.
VandenBerg argued housing first ultimately is cheaper for the city because it negates the need for emergency shelter, soup kitchens and other services. She also believes Grand Rapids could have solved homelessness three times over if it had used the Kent County Land Bank more for public good and took advantage of expensive real estate back during a strong buyer’s market.
The first house Well House bought from the land bank after VandenBerg came on board cost the organization $20,000, she said. Well House acquired about 15 properties by the time VandenBerg left.
During VandenBerg’s five-year tenure at Well House, the organization moved 500 people — including heavy drug users and felons — off the street with a 90% success rate, with approximately $7 million in funds.
Despite all the heavy work, VandenBerg still finds time to let her hair down. She was partly responsible for bringing in a new entertainment culture to a city that 20 years prior only had sketchy underground venues.
VandenBerg and her brother, Jeff, have been heavily involved in the music industry since they were both teenagers, she said. Her first gig was raising money and booking performers for a benefit while she was at Calvin College and later became involved with her brother in booking events at clubs all over the city.
The two later realized they needed their own club, which led to the conception of The Meanwhile Bar in 2007.
“It took us five years to get it open, but the minute it was, it was crazy packed,” VandenBerg said. “It was like the city had been waiting for this; this bar that wasn’t a sports bar and didn’t have TVs everywhere.”
The bar became a gathering place for artists, activists and other community members. After the initial success, the VandenBergs started looking for spaces for a live music venue.
The search put them in touch with Mark Sellers, owner of BarFly Ventures. He had opened the first HopCat restaurant just a few months after The Meanwhile opened and was interested in joining them on the venture.
“There was no way we could have done it without Mark. He was the investor. He put up the funds,” VandenBerg said.
The partners opened The Pyramid Scheme at 68 Commerce Ave. SW in 2011, and VandenBerg said it has been a huge success for live music, but bringing new wealth and commerce into Grand Rapids brings the looming shadow of gentrification.
“My fight has always been there’s plenty to go around for everybody, and my belief is that Grand Rapids and West Michigan in general has had this trickle-down approach, which has not worked,” VandenBerg said.
While she agreed it may be hypocritical coming from a business owner, VandenBerg said the “obscene” pro-business attitude in West Michigan is largely responsible for inequity.
“Look at medical marijuana licenses,” VandenBerg said. “We had this huge possibility to generate wealth for our own citizens … (licenses) go to giant corporate conglomerates, people that have never lived here. I think there’s two that went to people who live in Grand Rapids.”
VandenBerg said The Meanwhile goes out of its way to hire local, and most of its employees rely on public transit to get to work and don’t even own a car.