As a business owner and housing advocate in the Heartside neighborhood of Grand Rapids, Tami VandenBerg was devastated to see so many people there still living on the streets.
She considered starting her own organization four years ago, around the time she heard Well House was struggling. VandenBerg approached the board of directors about helping to revive the organization and stepped into the role of executive director.
“It was a little terrifying and a little scary,” she said, admitting it was a challenging time with board members leaving and disagreements about the mission.
Since then, the organization has expanded from three houses to 13 and recently opened the first house for young adults. She credits her business experience with helping to increase the annual budget tenfold and convincing funders to get on board.
“I don’t know if I would have dared to take this on if I hadn’t had my experience running my businesses,” said VandenBerg, the winner in the Professional Achievement category of the MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards. “People say a nonprofit is not a business. A nonprofit is a business. You have to have money to pay the bills and you need to act ethically. I am very cognizant of the financial piece and how it moves the mission forward.”
Marian Clements founded Well House in 1977 after she was depressed and unable to hold a job and opened her home to others in need of comfort and protection. The organization continues to honor the urban homesteader by living gently on the earth and with each other, practicing recycling, energy conservation, urban farming and communal living.
VandenBerg redirected the organization’s focus from emergency shelter to a “housing first” model, intent on providing homeless people safe and affordable housing regardless of religion, sobriety, sexual orientation, criminal background or other factors.
“What I heard over and over again was that most folks from the street just want a place to live,” she said. “At some point, we decided to treat people who have been homeless. We required them to do all of these extra things, whether that’s get involved in a religion or not be able to have a beer or have overnight guests.”
Most have a little bit of money and don’t need an entire house or apartment. Mainly, they want to be treated with respect, like an adult, and be free to make decisions without a bunch of rules.
At Well House, she decided, “Well, let’s just try that. And it blew up from there.”
Residents live in shared community housing, pay monthly rent and have a month-to-month lease. They can stay for a month or indefinitely as long as they abide by their lease. So far, the model appears to be working.
“We’ve moved 134 people off the street since then and over 90 percent of those individuals and families have not returned to homelessness,” she said. “They are still there or moved on to some other housing of their choice, which is a very, very high success rate given the group that we’re working with.”
VandenBerg projected a vision for what the organization should become — one that meets people where they are, with dignity, and without added requirements for housing — and was able to get residents, staff and board members excited and invested in the new direction, said Bill Stough, a past board member who continues to volunteer and support the organization.
The organization purchases vacant, boarded-up houses from Kent County Land Bank and renovates them. It also operates an urban farm for both residents and the neighborhood and provides opportunities for residents to earn an income and learn job skills.
Although not trained in social work, VandenBerg said she has always been a humanitarian and interested in human rights issues. She graduated from Calvin College with an English degree and took an AmeriCorps position in Louisiana before returning to Grand Rapids.
She began at The Salvation Army’s Homeless Assistance Program, moved on to The Recuperations Center, then served as director of housing at Community Rebuilders before taking a break to own and operate the Meanwhile Bar and The Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids with her brother, Jeff VandenBerg.
“I’ve worked with folks with mental health issues, folks who struggled with addiction issues, and without housing, it was kind of a herculean task to work on any other issue going on in someone’s life,” she said. “The way the system was historically set up, people think people are homeless because of bad choices, and certainly all of us have made bad choices, including people on the street, but there’s just a lot more to it, a lot more systemic issues.”
Her leadership style is one of empowerment, and her forte is problem solving and big-picture thinking, she said. She lets her team handle the day-to-day management of Well House while she focuses on board relations, public events, fundraising and advocating for policy that aligns with research and evidence.
“It’s really just this model of everyone being welcome, respect yourself, respect the property, respect everyone around you,” she said. “I’ve never met anybody who has really enjoyed living on the street; when people are offered dignified housing, I have yet to be turned down.”
Audrey Chapman, the current board chair of Well House, responded to VandenBerg’s request for board members four years ago, and agrees she has brought an energy and passion to the organization.
“The growth of the organization since she took over kind of speaks for itself,” Chapman said. “If you look at the foundations and our donor support, it has grown extensively, and there’s a lot of support in the community.”
VandenBerg continues to raise awareness for the Housing First model, backed by research, data and national trends, and is generous with her time and knowledge.
“Being on the board feels like a team that is all moving in the same direction, really clearly, and that is because of the way she leads,” Chapman said.
Sure, there are challenges around funding and various opinions on the best ways to solve homelessness, but VandenBerg said the reward is in showing tenants their new rooms and handing them the keys.
“That’s something that never, ever gets old, when someone comes in living in a car, or a shelter, or an abandoned building, that never, ever gets old. It’s just a beautiful thing to see,” she said. “No matter what you do, there’s somebody out there critiquing you. I’m getting better and better at understanding that you put yourself in the public eye and everybody will have an opinion.”
With a waiting list at Well House and nearly 800 to 1,000 people locally with nowhere to go on any given night, there is still more work to do. Her goals are to continue to purchase and rehab more houses, continue to get people off the streets, provide more jobs and healthy food, and stay focused on the bigger political and social issues facing the city as a whole.
“People assume the clientele is a challenge, which is not true. They have challenges, but that’s really not at all the hardest part of this type of work,” she said. “The politics are much, much more challenging.”