Housing, workforce training campus ‘shining example’ of push to cut homelessness

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By Kate Klemp December 12, 2023

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Originally Published on Mlive

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — As Dennis Van Kampen walks down Garden Street SE, he talks enthusiastically about a host of projects that will bring affordable housing, workforce training and new businesses to the Southeast Side neighborhood near Division Avenue.

Van Kampen, president and CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries, calls it a “shining example” of the push to cut homelessness.

He points to a faded, industrial building on his left that will be transformed into 10 low-income housing apartments and a new workforce training center for Next Step of West Michigan. Up ahead, there’s a parking lot that will be replaced with 16 tiny homes. To his right, a new two-story building is set to open next month with space for Jireh Metal Products and Adept Furniture.

“To see what this means to this neighborhood and to see the future and the lives that are going to be changed through this is just amazing,” Van Kampen said.

Mel Trotter is known by many for its 650-bed homeless shelter at 225 Commerce Ave. SW, where guests have access to meals, showers, case managers and more. But over the past nine years, Van Kampen says he’s worked to strengthen Mel Trotter’s efforts to help residents find stable jobs and a permanent place to live, allowing them to leave homelessness behind.

For Van Kampen, who’s leaving Mel Trotter at the end of the year to lead the Denver Rescue Mission, the work on Garden Street is one of the biggest examples of that focus.

“Most people that have lived in this community long enough have heard of Mel Trotter,” he said. “However, oftentimes, Mel Trotter is viewed just as a shelter, and I’m not sure we’re often viewed as a solution helping people leave homelessness. This is one of many shining examples where Mel Trotter — through workforce development, housing and collaboration — we’re actually helping people leave homelessness.”

One of the first celebrations of the work on Garden Street SE will happen Friday.

Van Kampen, along with project partners and elected officials, will gather at the new two-story, 15,000-square-foot manufacturing building at 130 Garden St. SE for a “blessing of the building.” Next month, Adept Furniture is expected to move into the building, followed by Jireh Metal Products.

The two businesses will lease space at the building from Mel Trotter, and, hopefully, hire workers who complete workforce training through Next Step of West Michigan, Van Kampen said.

Next Step, whose headquarters is located at 100 Garden St. SE, was acquired by Mel Trotter in 2020. It provides wood manufacturing services for businesses and provides training for people who have struggled with homelessness.

On a recent morning, about six people in the nonprofit’s seven-week workforce training program were at the nonprofit’s building, helping assemble wood chairs, cedar crates and other products Next Step manufacturers for businesses.

“I’ve learned a lot,” said Alexander Graves, 34, who was homeless but now lives in transitional housing provided by Mel Trotter on Garden Street, just a short walk from Next Step’s headquarters. “I really didn’t know how to read a tape measurer when I first came here. Now I know how.”

Examples of Next Step’s work includes a hardwood birch trellis for Eastern Kille’s new location in Rockford.

In addition to the new manufacturing building, the project also includes more job training space for Next Step and Mel Trotter. The additional space could help providing training for 120 people a year, up from 30, Van Kampen said.

For Graves — the man living in Mel Trotter’s transitional housing — his time at Next Step helped lead to a job at Jireh Metal Products, one of Next Step’s partners, starting next week.

“It means a lot to me, seeing how I cam here with nothing and am gradually moving up,” said Graves, who has undergone treatment for methamphetamine addiction at Guiding Light and is now six months sober. “It’s a very special opportunity for me.”

Those are the kinds of stories Van Kampen wants to replicate.

“A lot of businesses, some of their employees they may or may not be experiencing homelessness, but they have challenges, and some of these challenges can make it hard for them to keep a job,” he said. “Companies can leverage Mel Trotter and Next Step and our case managers to help walk with their employees and make sure they not only have their jobs, but they can maintain their job.”