by Ardyce Czuchna-Curl
“Building Relationships and Overcoming Homelessness” is the motto of Open Doors and a pretty good description of the work of Mike DeWaele ’97. He serves as support coordinator for the Open Doors program, a 75-unit residence community in Kalamazoo that provides rooms as well as studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments for low-wage workers priced out of the housing market. The organization also works with people who have other barriers to housing, such as evictions, criminal history, or bad credit. Open Doors serves both individuals and families.
“For every 100 extremely low income (ELI) families in Michigan needing affordable housing, only 27 units of housing are affordable and available,” DeWaele said. He cites figures from a newsletter of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “After paying rent and utilities, three quarters of ELI rental households have less than 50 percent of their income to spend on food, transportation, child care, medicine, and other essentials.”
Since September 2009 DeWaele has been responsible for working with residents who pay a monthly fee that includes housing, all or most utilities, and personal support and assistance.
“Most residents live from paycheck to paycheck,” DeWaele explains. “If a car breaks down or the person is ill one day, they’re in trouble.” He helps them figure out how to survive and how to prepare a budget and stick to it. He said it’s often a challenge to help some individuals see that their cigarette habit is wrecking their budget as well as their health.
Open Doors team members work to develop one-on-one relationships with residents, helping each one become more self-sufficient. Program director Stephanie Hoffman finds suitable housing arrangements for residents. Maggie Hiatt coordinates volunteers. In total, Open Doors employs 11 paid staff members and relies on dozens of volunteers.
“We work to support residents in their efforts,” DeWaele explained. “It’s a tough juggling act for most. Some have to go to work early before the buses are running. We help them find transportation. Others have legal issues or criminal histories and can’t find jobs. Many are recovering from substance abuse."
“We can’t take people who are actively using drugs,” Mike said. “We don’t have resources to deal with that.” However, the staff works with those who are struggling to stay sober.
Rick Stravers, executive director of Open Doors, said, “As our first support coordinator, Mike has had the challenge of building the program. He has provided invaluable service to people who have lost their jobs, helping them make a job search plan, prepare résumés, and get transportation to submit applications and to do employment interviews. He has helped many of our residents navigate a bewildering array of social services to get the assistance they need to make a difference in their quality of life.”
“We don’t always win,” DeWaele said regretfully. “Sometimes there will be a relapse into addiction. Some residents make bad decisions. For others the level of commitment isn’t there, and we have to evict some who don’t pay their rent or who don’t follow the rules.”
Open Doors coordinates its efforts with those of community agencies such as Loaves and Fishes and Family Health Center. “And churches are a huge part of our support group,” DeWaele added. “They offer gifts to residents and some have provided property.”
Last year, 241 Open Doors volunteers logged 1,165 hours. Every first and third Wednesday of the month volunteers gather to take on short-term projects such as preparing apartments for rental. Residents at Cooper Apartments, the largest complex in the growing Open Doors system, proudly do the landscaping there. Three automobiles were donated last year to Open Door residents.
Open Doors has grown significantly from its origins as a single interim residential home. The Open Door for Young Men and Next Door for Young Women continue to be temporary housing for a half dozen men and women respectively. And last year Open Doors provided housing and personal support for 82 working needy families as well.
“It’s great to feel part of this culture of caring,” Mike said. “It’s good to get to know these residents and to be on the journey with them. These people work really hard.”
DeWaele’s own journey to help others find and keep homes began, ironically, with his leaving home. He came to Kalamazoo College as a freshman in September 1993, fascinated in particular with the College’s study abroad program, which would take him across an ocean and a continent.
“I felt an instant connection with the College,” DeWaele said. “K was unconventional, and I knew this was where I wanted to go.” And then “go” further! In his junior year DeWaele traveled with 11 other K students to Erlangen, Germany. He studied the German language and took a couple sociology courses and traveled throughout Europe with a Euro-Rail Pass, backpacking and staying in youth hostels.
“Eastern Europe was just opening up,” he said. “In Istanbul I witnessed real poverty for the first time. Although I grew up not far from Detroit, I wasn’t in touch with that.” In fact, he added, he grew up pretty self-involved near the Detroit suburb of Mt. Clemens. That a connection to his impoverished urban neighbor would begin to develop at the easternmost edge of the European continent doesn’t come as a complete surprise to DeWaele.
“At K we learn
"We learn to see ourselves in a broader context."to see ourselves in a broader context,” he explained. “K is a good lab for us to experience the world a bit differently. We meet a lot of interesting students and profs. We learn that our development is a community effort. We’re who we are as the result of a lot of people.”
When he returned to K, more life-changing experiences awaited him.
While in Europe DeWaele had become well acquainted with classmate Jerry Berrigan '97, son of the Roman Catholic activists Phil Berrigen and Liz McAlister. The Berrigans had spoken on campus before DeWaele studied abroad in Europe.
DeWaele said. “They advocated giving of yourselves, helping those who are oppressed. I thought this was the kind of struggle I had to commit to, to be on the side of the people on the margins and to share their struggles.”
After hearing the Berrigans, DeWaele became more involved in the Non-Violent Student Organization (established on campus in 1994), took a class in non-violence, and settled with eight other students on Catherine Street in a Living Learning Unit that became the headquarters for the NVSO.
In 2002 DeWaele and Jen Kipka ’97, a classmate whom he had met when both were undergraduates, were married. Jen was a human development and social relations major and had served as house coordinator for Residential Opportunities, a facility for people with developmental challenges.
DeWaele’s work at Open Doors dovetails nicely with his efforts at Peace House, a Catholic Worker Movement community on the east side of Kalamazoo that was established by the DeWaeles and their friends and classmates, Jerry and Molly Mechtenberg-Berrigan. (Mike and Jen’s two daughters, Clara and Alice, and Jerry and Molly’s two sons and daughter, Amos, Jonah, and Leah, complete the circle of immediate family at Peace House. See LuxEsto Spring 2010.)
In a sense, the work of Peace House and Open Doors further expands the circle of family. Said Dewaele: “We offer ourselves - along with all those who help and volunteer at Open Doors - as a community of support to people who may not have been nourished, encouraged, or protected enough. We welcome them into the circle.
“Open Doors (and Peace House, too) is to me a glimpse of the society that we should all work and hope for, one where all are valued and none are left out,” DeWaele added. “We’re not solving the problem of homelessness, but we do what we can.”
Photo 1 - Mike DeWaele considers Cooper Apartments (not far from Kalamazoo College) the crown jewel of the Open Door Residency Community.
Photo 2 - Rick Stravers, executive director of Open Doors, and Stephanie Hoffman, program director, confer with Mike DeWaele.
Photos by Ardyce Czuchna-Curl