Putting Vacant Housing to Good Use
600 Cass Avenue SE
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503
The 19:1 Campaign in Grand Rapids is all about turning vacant houses into functioning residences for homeless families who need them.
There are 752 people without housing in Kent County.
And 329 of them are children.
When Tami VandenBerg, the executive director of Well House in Grand Rapids, came on board in early
2013 she was mortified with the facts: 19,000 empty units -- including apartments and apartment-type units -- within homes in Kent County. That’s a staggering 19 homes for every one homeless Kent County individual.
Thus, the 19:1 campaign was born at Well House, a nonprofit that offers permanent, low-cost shared living arrangements in a handful of homes, some owned by the organization and others made possible through grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The Grand Rapids Community Foundation, and other funders.
VandenBerg surmised that there was not enough discussion, effort, awareness, or urgency about the housing disparity among Kent County residents.
VandenBerg surmised that there was not enough discussion, effort, awareness, or urgency about the housing disparity among Kent County residents. To launch the 19:1 campaign, Well House staffers led a nighttime walk with individuals and public officials in November of 2013. They walked in the dark through Grand Rapids neighborhoods, carrying only flashlights to lead their way. They stopped at vacant homes and looked into the windows. Each home received a moment of respectful silence before the group moved on to the next one. And the next one. And the next one.
Outreach for the 19:1 campaign involves marketing through social media, a partnership with local print media, and a push for increased funding through grants and public donations. Even community volunteers handing out flyers and “19:1” buttons are creating sparks of interest.
As awareness builds through the campaign, the idea is to implement a shared housing model in vacant housing units. The model itself is simple to understand: formerly homeless people -- individuals, couples and families -- occupy units in Well House homes that have been renovated to fit the varying needs of occupants and that are tailored for shared housing. Ramping up the volume of purchased and renovated vacant buildings will obviously provide many more people with permanent, affordable homes, closing the gap between vacant homes and the homeless folks who could use them.
VandenBerg and her staff are using the National Alliance to End Homelessness “Housing First” approach as a model to quickly locate permanent housing for the homeless.
In addition to housing, Well House offers residents employment, including remodeling work in Well House homes,
...the high number of homeless children in Kent County was of great concern, knowing that homeless families have a high chance of being separated and face other risks.
administrative jobs, and tasks in the vegetable gardens that Well House homes share to grow their own food.
As VandenBerg kicked off the project, the high number of homeless children in Kent County was of great concern, knowing that homeless families have a high chance of being separated and face other risks. Homeless parents suffer from a great deal of stress and depression as well.
“Being a parent is incredibly challenging,” VandenBerg says. “Can you imagine how much harder it would be with no access to a shower, no stable food supply, and the educational issues parents face for their children?”
VandenBerg has invited others to learn about the Well House model and understand how it works. “It is good for our community and would work in others. I’ve had calls from people in Detroit asking how we do it. That is a city that badly needs this,” says VandenBerg.
Education is key, so that funders, community members, and volunteers can understand that Well House homes are not temporary shelters. They are permanent homes for individuals and families who greatly need them.