There are hundreds of abandoned houses in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There are also hundreds of homeless people. A local nonprofit made the obvious connection: With a relatively small investment, it realized, it could buy the houses, fix them up, and give homeless people a very cheap place to live.
"I've learned over the years that we, as a society, are quick to over-complicate things," says Tami Vandenberg, executive director of Well House. "People on the streets just wanted housing and were happy to share a kitchen and bathroom. We have hundreds of vacant houses. What is the worst that can happen? People that were once homeless become homeless again? I was willing to take that risk."
Buying an abandoned house and fixing it up costs the organization between $40,000 and $95,000 and takes three to six months, depending on how badly the home has fallen apart. While contractors do specialized work, tenants and volunteers do the rest.
Unlike at a shelter, each tenant has their own room with a lock. While shelters often ask people to leave during the day, the rooms in the renovated houses are just like regular apartments, without rules. Rent is $275 for a single room with a mini fridge, and includes utilities and access to the rest of the house.
"What I heard from people on the streets over and over and over again was that if they could just get a room of their own, they would be happy to pay for it, as long as they were treated like an adult with no restrictions added to a lease," says Vandenberg. "There were many myths going around (and still are) that homeless people don't want housing."
It's an example of the "housing first" model of addressing homelessness, which argues that if homeless people are going to solve other problems in their lives—from unemployment to addiction—they need a stable place to live first. "Addressing the primary need, housing, allows our tenants to begin to recover from the trauma of living on the street, and begin to rebuild their lives," she says.
Since 2013, the organization has purchased 10 houses from a local land bank and plans to purchase another next month (prior to 2013, it owned three houses, purchased in the 1970s). Of the 121 people who have moved into the homes over the last few years, 29 have moved on to their own apartments. Fifty-two of those who still live there work for the organization or on its urban farm; 26 have outside jobs.
The system has advantages to traditional homeless shelters. "The biggest advantage is that people are placed in permanent housing much more quickly and are much more likely to succeed," she says. "The traditional shelter model is more of a 'deficit' model, focusing on all of the problems an individual or family has. Expecting or requiring folks to fix all their problems before getting permanent housing is a herculean task."
A 2013 study of the organization found that tenants at Well House were less likely to be hospitalized for mental health or substance abuse issues after moving in, helping save taxpayers hundreds of dollars per tenant in hospital bills.
The program is something that the organization thinks could work in other cities with a lot of vacant, dilapidated housing, and groups in Detroit, Flint, and other cities have reached out to learn more.
"The most important piece is to implement the 'housing first' model with fidelity, and to understand the harm reduction component," says Vandenberg. "You will not see the high rate of success if you add additional restrictions and requirements. People want to make decisions about their own lives, whether they have been homeless or not. At Well House, we believe they have every right to."
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