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Herman “Lee” Bonner and Candice Hager sit outside one of the houses in the Well House neighborhood.

Living the dream
Founded in 1977, Well House offers refuge
and hope for the homeless.

By Terri Finch Hamilton
Photography by Johnny Quirin

Sparrows twitter in a patch of ivy in Candice Hager’s backyard on Cass Avenue SE, and the “country girl,” as she calls herself, smiles.

“There are birds here and trees and crickets,” says Hager, 41, sitting at a picnic table with her partner, Herman Bonner, on a crisp autumn day.

Not so long ago, Hager was sleeping on a mat on the floor at Dégagé Ministries. Bonner, 60, was living at Mel Trotter Mission. Now they’re tenants at Well House, a cluster of houses that offer refuge for people who used to be homeless.

Hager and Bonner hold hands as they talk about having their own room with a key, a mini-fridge, access to a TV, a washer and dryer, fresh garden tomatoes.

And about hope.

“It’s hard for me to get an apartment,” Bonner says. He pauses, then explains. “I spent some time incarcerated. Nobody wants to give you a chance after that. Here, they don’t judge you by your past.”

Hager spent time in the substance abuse recovery program at Mel Trotter before living at Dégagé. Her income is disability payments because of an injury-plagued knee.

She happily tells of Well House’s library full of books — “I’m an avid reader” — games of bingo, gatherings to can salsa and make applesauce.

“When the cucumbers were ready in the garden,” she says, “everybody made pickles.

“This isn’t a permanent solution,” Hager says. “Someday we’d like our own place. But it’s a step up from where we were. We’re so grateful for this place. They support us and encourage us.”

 

Reggie Miller, a former Well House resident, volunteered to grill chicken for the Well House Harvest Festival in September.

And as long as they pay the $350 per month rent for a two-person room ($250 for singles) and treat the tenants and property with respect, they can stay as long as they like.

Inside, in her office painted with cheerful orange walls, executive director Tami VandenBerg tells how Well House is different than other housing programs in town.

“There are all kinds of fantastic organizations out there doing great work, so we’re very, very strategic in filling gaps,” she says.

It’s pretty simple: The more barriers you have to finding housing, the better shot you have at a room at Well House.

“A typical property manager says, ‘Who is the best applicant?’ We look at people who are consistently left out of housing opportunities.”

Good luck finding housing if you have a felony on your record, VandenBerg says. But Well House will take you. The only exceptions are criminal sexual conduct and arson.

“Other programs say, ‘Get all your things in order and then you can have housing — work on your addiction, get a job,’ VandenBerg says.

“Meanwhile, you’re carrying everything you own in a backpack, you’re getting beat up, people are stealing your stuff. And you’re supposed to try to stop doing the one thing that makes you feel better?

“We really overcomplicate homelessness,” she says. “People need an affordable place to live.”

“This whole model really makes sense,” says Roberta King, board chair of Well House. “If you provide somebody with stable housing, an anchor and a rock in life, then they can take care of their other problems.”

King tells of a Well House press conference last May announcing a new grant from the Kellogg Foundation. After the formal presentation, a sort of magic happened, she recalls.

“The residents started engaging with all the reporters there,” King says. “They said, ‘Let me show you my room.’ ‘Let me tell you my story.’ They were proud. They had something to show. Six months before, they had nothing to show.”


Maintenance supervisor Aaron Rewa, a Well House employee, works on refurbishing a house.

The three houses on Cass Avenue that make up Well House are currently at capacity with 15 tenants. There’s a waiting list of about 100 people. Two more houses are being refurbished, and VandenBerg has funding to buy two more.
It’s called Well House for a reason.

“Our number one goal is improving peoples’ health,” VandenBerg says. “We want to keep people from dying on the street. It’s so traumatic not to have a place to live. The pure stress of it is so harmful to your health.“Suddenly, they can sit down and lock their door. They have their stuff. They have our staff, who ask, ‘What do you need?

A counselor? A job?’”

Some work 10 hours a week in the Well House garden or fixing up the next Well House houses, earning $10 an hour.
Well House has a long and quirky history at the corner of Cass and Pleasant, housing 5,000 people over the years. Founder Marian Clements bought the 1879-era home at 600 Cass Ave. in 1977 and opened it to others in need of comfort and protection.

Clements lived without electricity, repairing her home with recycled materials and heating it with a wood furnace. She showered in her greenhouse, composted, kept goats for milk and cheese and maintained a big garden.

By 1991, the Well House community expanded with the purchase of a second house, and in 1992, the city of Grand Rapids donated a third house to the cause. Clements received national recognition for her mission in 1994. But two years later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she fought for a year before dying.

Friends and other activists stepped in until VandenBerg took the helm of the struggling nonprofit last year.

“It was because of Marian that I wanted to see if I could save this place,” VandenBerg says. “Marian left an incredible legacy. She had her own struggles. She had some mental health issues. She didn’t ft in. But she saw everybody as equals.”

That’s the Well House philosophy, she says.

“It’s a place where everybody feels valued,” VandenBerg says. “People care if you’re alive or dead.”

As she talks, the kitchen table is laden with donated artisan bread from Nourish Organic Market. Piles of eggplant, lettuce, radishes and parsley were just picked from the gardens. An activity coordinator plans movie nights, bingo, barbecues, food-canning classes and ice cream socials.

“At the end of the day, we just want to feel good,” VandenBerg says. “People who are homeless have been beaten down. We build them up.”

VandenBerg, 38, is a Calvin College graduate well known in town for owning The Meanwhile and The Pyramid Scheme bars with her brother, Jeff VandenBerg. She has the tenacity of a business owner and the toughness of a former roller derby queen. She has tattoos and some of the most enviable hair in town.

But her background is in helping people. She’s worked with people struggling with mental illness, including a stint as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. She worked for the Salvation Army Homeless Assistance Program and was involved in Kent County’s Coalition to End Homelessness.

VandenBerg spent three years on the board of Well House before taking over as executive director. Within five months, she had raised more than $330,000 for the organization — enough to not only keep it open, but also to purchase four additional houses.

The other day, she was talking to her father about Well House. If the place is so great, he asked her, what motivates people to move on?

She smiles.

“That’s the great thing. They don’t have to.”GR

 
   
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