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Monday, 23 November 2015 11:56

Beech champions national best practices to solve homelessness in Grand Rapids

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Vera Beech, Executive Director of Community Rebuilders Vera Beech, Executive Director of Community Rebuilders PHOTO: Katy Batdorff

GRAND RAPIDS — Having a genuine passion for the organization’s mission serves as a prerequisite for becoming the executive director of any nonprofit.

For an example of that passion in action, one needn’t look beyond Vera Beech.

However, it’s the way that Beech has leveraged her passion and the traits she has used to complement it that have made her effective as the leader of Grand Rapids-based Community Rebuilders.

“She’s incredibly knowledgeable,” said Jesica Vail, program manager at the Grand Rapids Coalition to End Homelessness, where Beech also serves as the vice chair. “She doesn’t just have the passion — she’s done her homework to back it up. She is probably the best versed in our community about all the different federal regulations and requirements for all that we do.”

Beech’s success in furthering the mission of Community Rebuilders and her extensive body of work in the nonprofit sector as a whole led to her selection as the winner of the Professional Achievement honor as part of the 2015 MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards.

Beech came to Community Rebuilders in 2007 after serving as the executive director of the Relief After Violent Encounter-Ionia/Montcalm Inc., an organization dedicated to serving victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

During Beech’s time with Community Rebuilders, she has been able to scale the organization’s efforts rather quickly. The group housed more than 1,600 people throughout Kent County in 2014, up from just 465 people in 2007.

Beech said the influx was simply a product of zeroing in on the organization’s primary objective, first and foremost.

“Historically, a lot of dollars for homeless services go to services. Maybe they’re paying for childcare or transportation or counseling services,” Beech said. “We took those dollars and purposed them as housing dollars. We were able to reduce the money on staff and service and direct that money to rental assistance.”

“You have to be looking at where your dollars are going and allocating them where they’ll make the most impact, and we know that is for housing,” she continued. “That doesn’t mean we ignore service needs. We want clients to connect with mainstream services when they’re available and supplement them when they’re not.”


EMBRACING NATIONWIDE BEST PRACTICES

Beech has been instrumental in steering Kent County toward national best practices in ending homelessness, even if they haven’t necessarily been the popular or the preferred method among local communities and fellow homeless service organizations.

Community Rebuilders operates on a housing-first mindset, meaning the very first step in helping a homeless individual or family is to get them housing. From there, they can be supported by additional services. The model includes clients with substance abuse or mental health problems, which can be very common contributors to homelessness.

“Most folks do much better and are able to stabilize their mental health or other concerns once they do get housing,” Beech said. “When people are in opposition to it, we talk to them about how housing can be that foundation or hope that really builds motivation for the future and helps people think about things getting better.”

Beech acknowledged the importance of sheltering and treatment, but also labeled them as traumatizing events. Housing, she said, is the most-effective long-term solution.

Scattered site housing is another key component of Community Rebuilders’ process. This is achieved through housing formerly homeless individuals and families throughout all neighborhoods, rather than condensing them to certain areas.

“Another provider recently said to me, ‘You know, by taking someone that is actively using drugs and alcohol and putting them in housing, you’re putting every other family at risk that lives in that housing.’ I just reminded him that there is risk everywhere,” Beech said. “Just because someone is homeless, doesn’t make him or her more likely to victimize you. It’s important to help people see that.”

Community Rebuilders monitors their clients for 12 months after leaving the program, and Beech said that 89 percent have not returned to homelessness — a sign that the process is effective.

Beech has worked to surround herself with a staff that has bought into those ideas and the mission. In fact, it is this singular vision that Beech said makes the organization so effective.

Earle “Win” Irwin, treasurer for Community Rebuilders and president and CEO of Walker-based Irwin Seating Co., commended Beech not only for her accomplishments, but also for installing a highly effective staff.

“She’s been able to get her people to have the same passion for serving,” Irwin said. “That’s a big deal. It’s one thing for the person at the top to have it, but it’s just as important to share it with the team and have them share that passion.”


OTHER FRESH APPROACHES

Community Rebuilders also differs from other homeless service organizations in that it uses the private rental market to house its clients, relying on local landlords who are not led by incentives.

The organization also generates revenue from its new training academy program, where Community Rebuilders works with groups around the country to help them implement similar programs. For example, Beech provided training and other resources on the housing-first model to Seattle-based King County Homeless Service Providers, a program that was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In the nonprofit sector, being called a “secret” isn’t necessarily a badge of honor, but it’s not something Beech is ashamed of, either. For the first decade to 15 years, Beech said Community Rebuilders did not do any public fundraising even though people would constantly coax her to “get the word out.”

“We remained focused on outcomes,” Beech said. “We knew by sharing the outcomes, it would help us get the support we needed.”


Professional Achievement
VERA BEECH - COMMUNITY REBUILDERS
Mission: Rebuilding hope through housing opportunities for families and individuals with support services during transitions.
Service area: Kent County
Number of employees: 34
Annual budget: $4.8 million
Best practices for management: “I’m not afraid of change and I seek out staff that is not afraid of change because we always want to be improving and changing,” Beech said. “Some folks are afraid of changing and are really risk-averse. To make things happen, you have to take a risk or bold action. I’d also say that it’s really essential to let the people you are serving drive what you are providing.”

 

COMMUNITY REBUILDERS BOARD OF DIRECTORS
• Beverly Wall (president), Languages International
• Earle “Win” Irwin (treasurer), Irwin Seating
• Rita Rodriguez (secretary), Grand Valley State University
• John Patrick White, Varnum
• Cynthia Swain, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan
• Eric Foster, Progress Strategies

Read 12358 times Last modified on Monday, 23 November 2015 11:40
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

jbussa@mibiz.com

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