What is your official title?
Executive Director of Housing Resources. My three year old son calls me Stinker Face, and my husband calls me My Love.
What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?
It really depends on the day; some days I’m out doing presentations to community groups and businesses, telling them about what we do with our housing solutions. Other days it’s an office day, troubleshooting, working on current projects, always trying to find funding. It varies from day to day.
What is Housing Resources, Inc.?
Housing resources is a housing organization that focuses on three areas: we develop affordable housing, provide facility based housing – we have the Eleanor House, which is the Emergency Family Homeless Shelter, and the Rickman House downtown for the disabled – and our third bucket is under the umbrella of what we call housing stabilization, which is homelessness prevention and housing assistance. The goal is for a person to never have to step over the threshold of a homeless shelter, but if they do, getting them out as soon as possible.
The Rickman House is beautiful; it’s recently rehabilitated and historically preserved with new stainless steel appliances and new countertops – it’s a place that anyone would want to live. People live with dignity and respect, which is one of the reasons I came to Kalamazoo. When I came to interview and saw the way people were living, I saw that Kalamazoo gets housing right. I saw people living this way permanently; it was very impressive.
Kalamazoo is an interesting place. I came from Toledo, and people just want to tell you how great it is in Kalamazoo and want to share all of the great things here. Housing and homelessness is complex, but everything in Kalamazoo is complementary to finding solutions. I’ve been in the role for a little over a year now. The job brought me here; it’s my dream job and I love it.
What is your background?
I am from Pennsylvania, raised about two hours north of Philadelphia in a coal mining town, and it’s still very depressed there, houses there cost $10-30K in my hometown. I went to an all women’s college, Immaculata University, and I was a music major, with voice performance and music therapy. I started doing music therapy with psychiatric patients on an outpatient basis. From there, about every two years I was developed into a new position and into management eventually. The music became more social, and the focus became more on housing the mental health population.
Eventually, I was with an organization in Philadelphia area called Horizon House for almost 20 years doing affordable housing for people with mental health issues coming out of state hospitals. The fact is that so many people believe that it doesn’t work, that there are too many issues there, but it did. Many of those people remain housed to this day.
I then moved to Toledo and was a Vice-President of United Way of Greater Toledo. United Way gave me the opportunity to see this broad perspective of community, and really honed management and leadership skills to get back to what my passion was to do this work. It’s been a good journey for me.
How can people get involved and volunteer for Housing Resources?
We are a coordinated entry point for people with a housing issue. We are always looking for ways for people to be be engage with what we are doing, so every Wednesday from 4:00-5:00pm, we have housing hour. If you have an issue, you walk in and share that with us and the community partners there.
We love to have people have that experience of seeing who comes in and where there is a need when they host housing hour. With the Rickman and Eleanor House, there are always volunteer opportunities. Maybe people will come in and make breakfast, teach a class, exercise with the residents. Unfortunately, kids will have to celebrate their birthdays in a homeless shelter, and so at the Eleanor House people will throw parties and bring treats for the kids. There’s a phenomenal thing that happens at St. Augustine’s across the street – I believe it is the third grade class. They take part of their afternoon snack and bring it over to the Eleanor House, I think every day, and share so the kids at the homeless shelter have a snack too. People think about getting engaged around the holidays, but in March and June there are still kids in the homeless shelter.
Beyond that, we need landlords. The landlords are key, and we have a phenomenal group of landlords who house our people every day and get them off the streets, but we need more to engage with us. It means that if you’re someone who owns a rental unit in Kalamazoo County, and you’re willing to look at who we serve, and your unit is certified, we typically can provide a security deposit and rental subsidy short or long term. We need landlords who can understand that the stigma attached to helping someone who we serve is often so wrong. People are successful and have lived for years without having issues with the property.
What kind of projects are you currently working on?
We’re always working on our service delivery, but the main thing right now is our March 22nd Annual Walk for the Homeless. We start at the Eleanor House and we walk all the way up to the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail and back, which is a 5K. Right now we are recruiting walkers, sponsors, and people can set up their own individual fundraising page. We are deep into the planning and are transitioning into implementation. Anybody can walk, and we usually have several hundreds of walkers – people bring strollers, crowd-friendly dogs. It’s usually a little chilly, and sometimes people say it’s too cold, but the homeless are in that type of temperature most of the time. You get over it, and that’s the beauty of it! We are hoping, though, that we are not going to be walking on a snow or river covered trail.
Are there any upcoming events that you’re particularly excited about?
The walk is the main one, but for me, I’m geared up for the new baseball team, The Growlers and for opening day. I think it’s at the beginning of May. We do like to support the other non-profits in town, so my staff and I attended Eat, Drink, Give for the Volunteer Kalamazoo and Habi Hour is coming up to raise money for Habitat for Humanity. We want to support each other’s efforts.
What do you love most about Kalamazoo?
Kalamazoo gets things done for me. The reason I came here is because I feel like Kalamazoo is doing things in the housing field right. There are things happening that Kalamazoo is doing that should really be on the national radar for. I think it’s small enough to get things done, but does big city things. There’s a commitment here, and a positivity, and where there could be conflicted theories or methods of how things get done, people are just moving. There’s a drive to move the needle, on a lot of issues, and especially housing. There is just a true sense of community here, and there’s not a lot of negativity. Everyone wants to tell you why Kalamazoo is wonderful.
What can be done to improve our beloved Kalamazoo?
Toot our own horn a little bit more. People are so proud to be from Kalamazoo. I came here just over a year ago, and recently one of my colleagues from Toledo followed me and is now the Executive Director at Gryphon Place – I talked about it so much. Let’s invite people, and let’s not give people an excuse to leave. There are jobs popping up all over and there’s so much happening here; we need to let the rest of the world in on the secret.
What have you been jammin’ to recently? What’s on the iPod?
I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, huge Jay-Z fan, and Donny Osmond rocks. But right now I’m kind of geeked up about the Frozen movie soundtrack. Every day I pick up Timothy, my son, from daycare and he says ‘Mommy, put that ice song on!’ And we sing all the way home. He tells me how to do the hand movements and everything; he’s got it down.
How do you take your coffee?…or do you?
I love the smell of coffee, but don’t drink it. My husband works third shift, so he brews the coffee late in the evening, and I love the house to smell like it, but I’m a hot chocolate girl.
What is your favorite app to use?
I’m a Kindle girl. I like the fact that all of my books are right there for me in one place. And then the usual, the Weather app; I’m not real fancy. It’s music and books for me.
Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?
Tap House is the thing right now, especially since they opened the one by our house on Centre in Portage. The Alamo Drafthouse is great, and the Kalamazoo Growlers will be my go to spot come spring. For family stuff, the Kalamazoo Valley Museum and the Public Library are favorites.
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
I think take more ownership and accountability, and to not be so critical of others. I think I’ve learned that, and I’m more aware of that now. It’s easy to point out the things around you that maybe aren’t going so great without placing yourself in the situation. Really, I’d say to self-reflect, and to be self-aware of yourself first and work to improve yourself before you expect things from other people.
What is your dream for the future of Housing Resources, Inc.?
I would love to see the day when we don’t need a homeless shelter. I want people to truly be able to live in affordable housing. Meaning that Housing Resources is doing everything they can to make sure that affordable living units are available for anyone who needs them. And living there means that all of their basic needs are met on whatever that income level is so they’re not having to struggle to live. That’s going to require many systems coming together. Home ownership used to be the end goal, but now it’s increasing the number of units in the rental market is going to be huge for solving issues in the housing market. The only solution to homelessness is housing, and if I could take Housing Resources to the level where the community understands that solution, that would be really great.
Michelle, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Michelle and Housing Resources on facebook. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.