After growing up in Grandville, Mich., and living in Calvin’s residence halls, Tami VandenBerg, a ’97 Calvin College graduate, moved to Eastown, the folksy neighborhood surrounding Lake and Wealthy Streets in Grand Rapids. She was attracted to the historic businesses and close sense of community. It was home.
Other than a year-long stint as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Lafayette, La., VandenBerg has been an Eastown resident ever since. Her sense of “home” has led to advocacy for people who are homeless.
“You can’t deal with anything in your life if you don’t have a place to live,” she said.
After earning an English degree at Calvin under the tutelage of favorite professors such as Jim Vanden Bosch, Susan Felch, and the late Lionel Basney, VandenBerg began writing essays and stories. She found herself drawn to “people on the fringes.”
“I began to see that much of the good that social workers and counselors tried to do for homeless folks was wasted due to inadequate or no housing,” she said. “How do you effectively coach someone who has walked around all night with no place to go, who falls asleep on the couch in the middle of a conversation?”
VandenBerg sent her résumé to any office or agency in Grand Rapids that had “homeless” in the name or institutional description. She was hired by the Salvation Army to work in its Community Rebuilders program.
She noticed that as long as people were homeless, it was exceedingly hard to deal with behavioral issues. She concluded that rental supplements were more effective than spending on social services.
“If you ask [people who are] homeless what they need, they will say rent far more than any other thing,” she said.
VandenBerg left Community Rebuilders, buying an abandoned building and turning it into the successful Meanwhile Bar—now a staple of the vibrant Wealthy Street arts and business corridor.
That venture led to the even larger Pyramid Scheme music club on Commerce Street in downtown Grand Rapids--again, a positive business venture as well as an artistic contributor to the city’s cultural reemergence.
The challenges of people who are homeless were never far from VandenBerg’s mind. She served on the board of Well House, a small nonprofit that provides safe and affordable housing. After the previous director retired, VandenBerg agreed to take the reins. She has since turned the organization into a vibrant, change-making nonprofit.
“We have six houses now—soon we’ll have seven—in addition to a number of lots for future expansion,” she said.
When Well House first reopened, there were 143 applications for 20 rooms. Well House takes in persons not taken in by shelters or other agencies—people coming out of jail or who are are addicted or live with mental illness. In the years since the organization has expanded, 87 percent of Well House residents have not become homeless again.
“Now,” she said, people who are homeless “are actually being courted by neighborhoods—they want us to establish a Well House where they live. What was once boarded up and dangerous is now positive and full of life.”