Today we are honored and delighted to introduce our co-founder John Vander Wagen who working in coordination with Leigh Coburn has founded Homeward Bound Villages. We had the opportunity to ask John some questions about how Homeward Bound Villages came to be the goal of the organization is. John’s interview is below.

Can you tell us about your background and what led you to focus on affordable housing and the cooperative village model?

I am a retired executive and former limited partner in an organization that provided distribution and logistic support services to McD both domestically and internationally. 

What led me to get involved was a relationship with Leigh. He needed help. So, when he asked me to participate in a program to raise awareness of the homeless problem, I said yes. I think that was around 2014. Prior to, and at that time, I was volunteering at the 1st United Methodist Church in Michigan City as its Treasurer. I would receive many requests for economic support from individuals who have to make choices between paying their rent, utility bills, prescriptions, and groceries. We also had a soup kitchen, which, on any day, would provide plated lunches to as many as 60 to 80 souls. Many of those attending were living in chronic homelessness, and several passed away as a result of their situation.  It was always heartbreaking as they died alone on the street, so to speak. We would learn about them through their “community’s” input to us.  Heartbreaking in many regards.  Yes, there were temporary shelters, but often, those with addictions or behavioral issues were not allowed to take advantage of those facilities.

I should also add that my grandfather, father, and my uncles were involved in delivering coal to residential customers years ago. There was an alleyway behind one of the fences of the coal yard, and I advised my father that there was a hole in the fence that allowed coal to run through it.  I told him it needed to be fixed.  He advised that it is there because there are people who do not have the means to pay for it, so they take a little at a time to keep themselves warm in the winter. That was my first experience doing something for others. I have a cousin, Doreen, who, for 45 years now, has been providing coats and clothing to the homeless in Chicago.  She was recognized by Oprah for her commitment to the community and received substantial support for the further development of her efforts. We were raised in church to take care of others, and I am proud of what our family has accomplished.

What inspired you to start this nonprofit organization, and how has your personal experience influenced your approach to addressing the affordable housing crisis?

The establishment of Keys to Hope became a resource center for those in need….if THEY wanted to get back on their feet.  It was and is a good start. Soon it became obvious that additional steps needed to be taken along the way which required a broader vision and that is what drove us forward to establish Homeward Bound, Inc.

Sequentially, so to speak. First, we fed them through a series of churches committed to this process. Then, helped them attain jobs, educated them financially as needed, and assisted them in securing a rental property. They were now home! Unfortunately, rental costs kept escalating, and soon, those we had helped needed to make the choices outlined previously. If they lost their jobs, they were quickly back out on the street. There needed to be a better solution.

After Leigh’s visit to a project in Austin, TX, Homeward Bound’s vision materialized with an idea to build smaller homes, tiny homes if you would.  The Board would not go along with the pattern of Austin’s Community First approach of homes of 100 square feet and the sharing of common facilities and communal kitchens.  An alternative was to develop a tiny home in the 300 to 400-square-foot range that was fully equipped. We developed site plans and building models and discussed them with city and county planning officials.  As Leigh has identified, support was lacking. Further, the zoning laws are all based on a minimum square footage for a home and certainly made it uneconomical.

Initially, we did receive pushback from the community and elected officials when we first proposed our project. Over time, and through welcoming community feedback and sitting down with elected officials, the sentiment has changed. We know that this project will not be popular with everyone, and that is just part of community living. With that being said, we went through a lengthy process of welcoming and implementing community feedback with the general public and potential residents. As an organization, we cannot talk about community and not be good neighbors. 

So when a property that met the needs of our first project, Karwick Village, became available, we purchased it. Knowing the community’s feedback in hand, we designed a series of 500-square-foot triplex units centered around a community building with lots of green space for future residents to enjoy. 

In your perspective, why does Homeward Bound Villages strive to create communities based upon a cooperative village model? What are the distinct advantages it offers to residents and the wider community?

From my perspective, the cooperative village model relieves Homeward Bound from the day-to-day activities of managing rental properties, which will allow us the opportunity to discern where improvements can be made. This will allow us to develop better models going forward when establishing future villages. While we maintain financial support and oversight of the properties at a high level, the day-to-day operations will fall on the members of the community.  

The distinct advantage of establishing the “cooperative” model is the opportunity to improve the quality of life for our members. Every member of the cooperative will be active in the governance, operation, and maintenance of the community. In the initial stages and through the completion of the project, Homeward Bound will fund and provide the mentoring and training resources necessary to develop the needed skills of the residents to effectively govern, operate, and manage all aspects of the community. The interaction between residents in this communal setting will provide the impetus to create lasting, caring relationships based on trust, mutual respect, and concern for each other. 

Starting a nonprofit is a challenging endeavor. What obstacles did you face in the early stages of establishing your organization, and how did you overcome them? 

As a nonprofit that is focused on finding solutions to homelessness and housing insecurity in our area, our attention was pulled towards existing organizations that needed support in both an advisory and funding capacity. In our early days as an organization, we wanted to make an impact in the community, and we had to realign as an organization to fund our own mission. While the help we provided to other organizations, such as Keys to Hope and Nest Community Shelter, was worthy, we had to remember that our organization is seeking to intervene before people need these other services. As an organization and a board, we had to have hard conversations about aligning and focusing on our mission. 

As you look to the future, what is your vision for the growth and impact of Homeward Bound Villages? How do you hope to expand your reach and make a lasting difference in the lives of those in need of affordable housing?

I believe this concept, properly managed by Homeward Bound Villages, could be established as a best practice, providing the opportunity to replicate it in various communities within our county.  Homeward Bound Villages (HBV) is a naming convention that allows us to have an HBV Karwick Village or an HBV Westville Village. After completing our first village, we will need time to assess the value and success realized by our members and our organization. That will be a determining factor for the development of future initiatives. Securing strong leadership from the business community and their involvement in setting direction as members of the Board will be essential to further development. 

Candidly, my reach has become one of an old man. For this initiative to move forward, I need to step aside for others to contribute with their fresh ideas and powerful involvement. My days have set the stage. Anyone who is anyone knows the need for affordable housing.  

The following speaks to the need…

I am quoting from the Laporte County Herald-Dispatch article “Sandcastle Shelter…125K Boost”.  “According to the latest ALICE [Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed} report in 2022, more than 51% of families in Michigan City struggled to meet essential needs like food, housing, healthcare, childcare, and transportation. That percentage climbed to 81% for single female-headed households and 63% for single male-headed households, said United Way of Laporte County’s President Kirs Pate.

Business leaders in our community, working with us, can bring about the zoning changes needed to allow the construction of well-constructed tiny homes that provide lower-cost, more energy-efficient housing opportunities at affordable rates. Every dollar saved in housing expenses enables those struggling to access better food, healthcare, etc.

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