As part of the Housing First model, Well House fixes up homes purchased from the Kent County Land Bank Authority and then moves homeless people into them. Courtesy Well House
Tami VandenBerg thinks the numbers show her organization may very well have discovered the secret to solving homelessness in Grand Rapids.
VandenBerg, executive director of Grand Rapids-based nonprofit Well House, recently announced it has hit a major “100-person” milestone. Since VandenBerg joined the nonprofit in January 2013, 103 people have been moved off the streets into safe, low-cost and permanent housing, with 91 percent of those individuals not returning to homelessness.
The numbers represent a big leap in progress for Well House. In June 2015, the nonprofit reported that, since January 2013, it had helped 68 people move into permanent housing, with 88 percent of them having stayed at Well House or relocated to other secure housing.
The 100-person milestone means the formula Well House is administering to address the problem of homelessness in Grand Rapids is no longer dismissible, VandenBerg said.
“We hit that number a lot faster than I thought we would, to be honest. There’s a big reaction. I don’t know if it’s because it’s triple digits or what, but I just notice when I talk to people, they’re just like, ‘Whoa, wow!’” she said.
“Once you get to 100 people and once you’re using the database and you have names and photos attached, then it’s really hard to dismiss the idea that this may be a solution that works.”
Well House arrived at these figures through a process of intensive focus on data, VandenBerg said. After all, she’s the respected local business owner of The Pyramid Scheme and The Meanwhile Bar and she knows the importance of numbers.
“When we took this project on in 2013, it was super-important that it be data driven and that this model be working,” she said.
“I have other businesses. I’m doing this because I want to do it and I want to make sure what we’re doing is working. I don’t want to waste my time.”
Well House’s track record is reflected in the Homeless Management Information System, a community database used by the state of Michigan. Michigan’s homeless organizations and shelters enter people into the system on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, VandenBerg said, adding that Well House was asked to join the data base by the Kent County Coalition To End Homelessness.
VandenBerg praised Michigan’s efforts to use a single system, as well as other local shelters for their work.
“We also have our spreadsheets so that every single person who moves in is tracked when they moved in — how long have they been there, where did they go, do we know where they went, etc.,” she said. “We track a lot of data, but these are the most crucial numbers.”
The strategy that’s helped create Well House’s success — the plan Vandenberg is so hopeful about — is called the Housing First model, first developed by Dr. Sam Tsemberis in New York in the 1990s.
For years, the traditional model many nonprofits have used is to provide shelter to homeless people, many of whom have mental health or substance use issues, and not supply permanent housing until they’ve “checked off the boxes” of getting their issues under control.
Many nonprofits “treat housing like a reward,” Vandenberg said. The Housing First model shifts that traditional model around by getting homeless individuals into stable housing first, and then working closely with them on needs like employment, counseling and treatment for mental health and substance use issues.
“It turns the paradigm on its head, but there’s resistance to this model — not just in Grand Rapids, but all over,” she said. “I think there’s a myth that everybody who wants help can get it, and that is absolutely not true.”
The reason there is homelessness in Grand Rapids is because there is not enough low-cost housing, Vandenberg said.
“The average one-bedroom apartment is $700 to $800 per month, plus utilities. Someone working full time for minimum wage earns $1,300 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,” she said.
Homelessness in Grand Rapids is a problem that needs to be solved not only for the sake of those suffering, but also for the economic costs to the community, VandenBerg said.
“Not solving the problem actually costs you, me and every Grand Rapidian that pays taxes more money,” she said, adding that shelter support, hospital bills, jails and detox all create a much larger sum over an extended period of time than providing stable housing in the first place.
She pointed to the example of the Canadian city of Medicine Hat. The city implemented Housing First in 2009, and last year city officials announced they’ve solved the problem of homelessness in the city.
Grand Rapids, on the other hand, had a plan to end homelessness that failed, VandenBerg said. The plan ran from 2004–2014, and saw almost zero results in the amount of homeless people on the streets, she said.
“It’s incredibly sad, especially for the people on the street,” she said. “We haven’t had an effective strategy as a city.”
As for Well House, it’s received more than 400 applications from people who want a place to live, and for every person it takes, it has had to turn three away.
Before VandenBerg came on as director, Well House owned three homes and one vacant lot, and it’s since purchased nine more homes and five vacant lots for food-growing. All of the homes, which had long been vacant and several of which were slated for demolition, were purchased from the Kent County Land Bank Authority.
“According to the census in 2010, over 19,000 housing units were vacant in Kent County. We plan to continue purchasing these homes, fixing them up and moving in our neighbors who need them the most,” VandenBerg said. “We believe the crisis of homelessness can be solved in our city.”
According to the Greater Grand Rapids Coalition to End Homelessness, in Kent County there are about 900 people on the streets and in shelters on any given night.
“We’re going to continue to do what we’re doing, we’re going to expand and grow and keep getting more houses, getting people off the street and spreading the word of a real solution for homeless,” she said.
“I’m trying to show that we can do this. Not that I can do this by myself, but we want to show there’s a strategy that could work.”