On August 3rd, 2014, Executive Director Tami Vandenberg spoke at Fountain Street Church. Below is the transcript.
‘Justice for People who are Homeless’
by Tami Vandenberg
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:40
I want to start out telling you a bit about my journey, about what brought me to where I am, to the work I do now, that I feel is so important… Then I want to talk a little bit about why I do the work I do, they WAY I do it. Finally, I want to challenge each of you to look at yourselves, and think about what you can do to bring much needed justice to those who are our absolutely most vulnerable neighbors.
People often ask me why I have always been so active in causes, particularly in the work of getting people off the streets and out of shelters and into homes… What I can say, is that it is just in me. I’m sure many of you have a similar drive, that you couldn’t stop doing something if you tried… I have been following the leading researchers on homelessness for years, attending conferences with my own money, and visiting organizations that seemed like that had incredibly effective approaches for years…
I remember going down to Guiding Light Mission with my youth group as a teenager to attend a church service and serve the meal afterward. I remember examining the people at the shelter and wondering how they got there… who were their families? What happen to their housing? Were they going to be okay? How long were they going to have to live in a mission? They looked so depressed, and many looked sick.
I continued to volunteer for any and every service project I could… going to Mexico and Florida.. When I went to College, I became engaged in political activism. Examining a variety of issues that seemed so awful for human beings like war, racism, sexism, and all sorts of other injustices…
While at Calvin I began working for a facility that is now part of Hope Network. The people living there had mostly been moved out of the Kalamazoo State Hospital, and were unable to live independently and did not have family to take them in. I began to see very clearly just what some people are really faced with in this world, and I haven’t stopped trying to find better ways for our most forgotten and neglected neighbors to be treated.
I then moved down to Louisiana as an Americorps Volunteer. I worked with people who had been released from their State Hospital and quickly realized that without a place to live, it is virtually impossible to help anyone with any other type of issue they are having. Whether it is a physical health issue, a mental health issue, a chaotic substance use issue, an employment problem, or anything else…
When I moved back to Grand Rapids about 15 years ago, I began working on housing for the homeless and really haven’t stopped.
I applied for a position at the Salvation Army’s Homeless Assistance Program and became a case manager for people who heavily utilized the shelter system. The program served primarily women with children, and single women who no longer had custody of their children. Very quickly I began to see what these women faced on a day to day basis, and it was exhausting. We would spend our days going all over town looking for landlords who would rent to people with miniscule incomes, we’d look for jobs that paid over minimum wage, we’d apply for first months rent and deposit… The waiting lists for low income housing were months or years long. Women who were homeless long-term were at risk of losing custody of their kids, many had already lost custody. My clients were depressed, some self-medicated, others turned to sex work, it was brutal to watch.
While we had many small wins, and found jobs and housing for many families and women, I couldn’t help but see that the issue of homelessness was less about the people who are homeless, and more about the system that was set up to serve them. We were spending all kinds of money on social workers and homeless shelters and soup kitchens, and what people wanted and needed were jobs with a living wage, permanent housing, and a real chance to take care of themselves and their families on their own. I couldn’t help but notice that there were a very disproportionate amount of black women and men in the shelters. The black community has not had the opportunity to build family wealth that other communities have, and centuries of racism have resulted in very disproportionate incarceration rates resulting in huge barriers to jobs and housing options. Policy and systems change were absolutely crucial to ending the injustice of homelessness.
Did you know that research has shown living on the streets long term will take between 15-25 years off your life expectancy? Women who live on the street are regularly victims of assault, both men and women are often the victims of physical assault. LGBT youth are some of the most victimized people on the street.
There really just isn’t any excuse for people in the richest country in the world to be living on the streets and in homeless shelters. There is plenty of wealth to go around, and my view is that we should be ashamed of ourselves that we have allowed this to happen.
After a decade or so of working on housing the homeless as well as systems change, I took a much needed break. I opened a couple of businesses, and served on the board of directors of Well House. I had always been impressed with Well House, an organization with a focus on justice and environmentalism. It was founded by Miriam Clements who had been homeless herself. I helped transition the organization from a homeless shelter to shared, community, permanent housing.
In 2012, once my businesses had stabilized, and when it looked like no one else wanted the job, I took on the role of Executive Director. It has been one of the most meaningful and challenging things I have ever done. Here are a few things I have learned about homelessness and the people who experience it over the last couple of decades:
1 – I have never met someone who wanted to have no where to live. I have worked with hundreds of people directly or indirectly, and although some did not want the housing options presented to them, none have ever stated they did not want a place to live.
2 – There are many, many reasons why people become homeless, but by far the most common is that they do not have enough money to pay for housing.
3 – Some people who are homeless have untreated mental health issues, some are veterans with PTSD, some struggle with addictions, most have very little earning power, many are very depressed and the stress takes a toll on their physical health. 40% of homeless youth are from the LGBT community, many of whom have been kicked out of their homes.
4 – What we have seen at Well House, where we use an evidence based approach called ‘Housing First’, is that once people are in housing, they will almost all immediately begin getting better mentally, physically and emotionally. With just the right amount of support, not too much and not too little, most people will remain in housing and move on to bigger and better things.
We have interviewed tenants since coming to Well House about their experiences being homeless. Here is what Shane had to say: ‘Well House means a great deal to me… you know, because I was on the street, I was totally hopeless… Feeling like, man, where do I go from here? And then all in one day, I got a job, and a place to live… and that self-worth of actually doing something, instead of feeling like you are walking around in a dark room running into walls…’
5 – According to the HUD Point in Time Count in January of 2014, 793 people were homeless in our community. 258 were children. 431, well over half, were from the black or african american community. (9 percent of the overall population in Kent County are black).
After I took over Well House, I began thinking about all the vacant houses in the neighborhood… I had seen some national data about there being 6 empty houses for each homeless person, and I wanted to see what that ratio was like in Kent County. I started poking around online and found out that according to the 2010 census, there were more than 19,000 vacant housing units in Kent County. I found this to be an incredibly alarming number… There were more than 19 vacant housing units for every one person experiencing homelessness. What kind of a society arranges itself in such a way????
I am not a person who thinks we should be giving handouts to people, but I am a person who believes that we should at least all be able to start on an even playing field. We need to create the conditions that will allow people to thrive on their own, and believe me, the vast majority of people will. What can you do to help level the playing field? What can you do to un-rig the game?
Grand Rapids has been called Beer City, we have one of the largest art competitions in the world, we built a multi-million dollar market… How about we become the city that is known for ending homelessness. I’m in, how about you?
“TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” – Howard Zinn
“I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” – Frederick Douglass