Since 2013, when Tami VandenBerg took over as executive director of Well House, the organization has moved 153 people off the street and into housing.
These are individuals denied housing previously by other organizations or government programs, many of which have stringent requirements related to addiction and misdemeanor or felony charges.
Well House follows the harm reduction housing first approach to homelessness — an approach that has been gaining traction nationally.
The housing first model means getting individuals into housing as quickly as possible and then helping them address other needs, such as mental health or addiction support.
The model differs from the more conventional approach of requiring treatment ahead of housing.
“We’ve had more success than I expected,” VandenBerg said of Well House’s success rate.
She said over 90 percent of Well House tenants have not returned to homelessness.
“Eighty percent would have been good, so over 90 percent is fabulous,” she said.
Well House has amassed 14 houses since 2013, 11 of which currently are serving tenants.
VandenBerg said that in March, Well House opened its first youth house thanks to a $50,000 WK Kellogg Foundation grant; the organization just received a $20,000 grant from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation’s Our LGBT Fund to open a second youth house dedicated to serving LGBTQ individuals.
While Well House has been focused on housing adults, community need led to the decision to open youth housing.
“We’ve been hearing on the ground, since I became director of Well House, there is a big gap in youth housing that is harm-reduction oriented and that is LGBT friendly,” she said.
Well House’s first youth house has two three-bedroom units and is serving six residents and a newborn. It also has a live-in house parent who is responsible for making sure everyone is safe and the house is maintained.
Like Well House’s adult residents, the youth have the opportunity to perform work for Well House to earn income.
The residents are 18 to 24 years old.
Because the house is specifically funded for youth, residents can age out.
“They are on a month-to-month lease, and they can stay as long as it works for them and us, but at 23, they will have to actively start looking for something else,” VandenBerg said.
She said that includes moving into Well House’s adult housing if it’s available.
VandenBerg expects the LGBTQ Youth House to be up and running by the end of the year, but Well House still has to do some additional fundraising and purchase the house.
As housing prices rise in Grand Rapids, VandenBerg said it is becoming more costly to purchase and rehab houses.
“Prices have changed drastically in our neighborhood,” she said. “We have to find a little bit more funding than we had to two or three years ago.”
She said a house that previously would have cost Well House $20,000 now costs closer to $60,000.
Even with increased costs, VandenBerg doesn’t expect Well House’s momentum to slow.
She said Well House has increased its individual and business donors, which is helping it deal with increased housing costs, and she said a recent study conducted by the Community Research Institute (CRI) at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy is helping Well House make its case to the community that housing first works.
Vandenberg addressed the portion of residents who have returned to homelessness following their time at Well House, saying for some people community housing doesn’t work.
“It’s all community housing, all shared, some people love it, and for others, they don’t,” she said. “And again, we prioritize people with addiction issues and people who have interacted with law enforcement, so we’ve had some people who have not been able to follow the lease, because of their substance use or mental health issues or they just don’t want to.”
Well House is committed to gathering data on the housing first model and has enlisted CRI in a larger, more extensive study, which VandenBerg expects to be completed by the end of the year. She hopes the study will help attract more financial support for the program to buy more houses.
“We will continue to move as quickly as we can,” she said. “We are hoping to do between two to four houses per year indefinitely.”
VandenBerg said there still are 1,500 vacant houses across Grand Rapids that could be converted to housing for the city’s homeless, and she’d like to see the city and county get involved in making those houses accessible.
“Other cities have done an incredible job. Vancouver, for instance,” she said. “You can’t just have a vacant house; do something with those houses. It is very challenging, but what better thing can we spend our time on?”
She also said she agrees with some recent recommendations that have been presented, including changing the minimum lot size for housing and changing the maximum number of unrelated tenants who can live in a dwelling.
“We’ve had five-bedroom houses we’ve only been able to move four people into. If the minimum lot size was slightly smaller, we could build on some of these vacant lots,” she said. “We have vacant lots all over, but a lot of them are no longer legal to build on because of the lot size.”
VandenBerg said what it comes down to is people deserve housing, and housing first works.
“Our community really is at a crossroads and downtown is thriving and busy, but we have to house people. There is a lot of conflict right now. When I’m on the street talking with folks, they want housing. Our model is extremely cost-effective and it’s better.”
She said Well House has received more than 600 applications since 2013.