Heart for the homeless

Tami VandenBerg ’97


Summer 2014

Tami VandenBerg ’97 has never gone to a school that wasn’t named after John Calvin.

“Yep, it was Calvin Christian grade school, middle school and high school—and then Calvin College,” she said.

After growing up in Grandville, Mich., and living in Calvin’s residence halls, VandenBerg 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 stint as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Lafayette, La., VandenBerg has been in Eastown ever since, and her sense of “home” has become advocacy for the homeless.

“You can’t deal with anything in your life if you don’t have a place to live,” she stated.

After earning a Calvin English degree under the tutelage of favorite professors such as Jim Vanden Bosch, Susan Felch and the late Lionel Basney, VandenBerg began writing essays and stories, finding 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 and falls asleep on the couch in the middle of 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 and eventually administered multi-million dollar HUD grants.

She noticed that as long as people were homeless, it was exceedingly hard to deal with behavioral issues. It was her conclusion that giving people rental supplements so they could stay in stable housing situations was more effective than spending dollars on social services.

“If you ask the homeless what they need, they will say rent far more than any other thing. We think of behavioral issues first, but the key issue is income insufficient for stable housing,” she said.

VandenBerg left Community Rebuilders to take a needed break from her all-in work style and wound up in partnership with her brother, Jeff, 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 into 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.

Even during this time, the challenges of the homeless were never far from mind. VandenBerg served on the board of Well House, a small non-profit that provides safe and affordable housing. After the previous director retired, VandenBerg agreed to take the reins of Well House and has since turned the organization into a vibrant, change-making non-profit.

“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 re-opened, 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, the addicted, the mentally ill. Yet, in the years since the organization has expanded, 87% of Well House residents have not become homeless again.

“The 600 block of Cass Street feels totally different now,” said VandenBerg. “As people in the city see how transforming stable housing is for individuals and communities, places like Well House become sought after.

“Now,” she said, “the 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.”