Dennis Van Kampen
President & CEO
Dennis Van Kampen, President & CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries, is a passionate visionary. He is unapologetically never satisfied, believing one can always grow, learn, and do better. To him, that doesn’t mean not celebrating the victories but rather, never becoming complacent. Dennis sees himself as the conductor of an orchestra of brilliant musicians, each of whom is more gifted than he in their craft. His job is to conduct the orchestra in its entirety, helping it play beautiful music together to benefit both listeners and players. Put another way, he intentionally surrounds himself with people who are better than he is in their respective areas and empowers them to lead, create and help the organization move forward beyond where anyone on the outside may perceive it can ever go.
He is constantly thinking about the organization 5, 10, 20 years from now and allows the team to focus on today and tomorrow. Mel Trotter Ministries (MTM) was founded in 1900 as the Grand Rapids City Mission. It was founded in response to a significant problem with alcoholic men within the city. Through providing shelter, programming, and spiritual care, the mission walks alongside each person individually to help them move forward in their lives. The organization was and remains a Christian faith-based ministry that works with anyone searching for help, treating every person with dignity and without judgment. MTM believes everyone has a purpose and a calling, and while this may be a very rough time in their life, it is not who they are. MTM exists to demonstrate the compassion of Jesus toward anyone experiencing homelessness or hunger. “Anyone means anyone. Man, woman, family, youth, LBGTQ, young, old and those of all faiths or no faith,” he says. “We do not force faith on anyone; we offer opportunities for people to explore faith if they desire. Our vision is to end homelessness one life at a time.”
According to Dennis, the vast majority of people do not enter homelessness because of a lack of money—at least not right away. Most enter homelessness because of relationship issues. Those issues can stem from a lack of support networks to being the recipient of systemic injustice. So if relationships are what bring most people into homelessness, then relationships will also help them leave. “There is no one magic answer. The answer is housing. The answer is mental health care. The answer is a relationship. The answer is workforce development and addiction recovery. The answer is uniquely individual,” he explains. “Our job is to come alongside people and build relationships, to earn the right to hear someone’s story and then be invited into it. From there, it is to help navigate the challenges associated with leaving homelessness forever.” For some, it is helping them get housing immediately, period. Others say they have tried to maintain housing unsuccessfully and want first to obtain further stability, whether it be through some program, counseling, or workforce development. The single mom fleeing a domestic violence situation needs a place to heal. The frightened and abandoned teenager needs a place to belong and be accepted. Meeting people where they are, helping them recognize their value, worth, and dignity helps them regain hope and a vision that allows them to move forward.
“Tecca has a master’s degree. She moved here from the other side of the state for a better job. She has no family left. One morning she slipped on a patch of ice and broke her hip. Eventually, because of her rehab and inability to work, she lost her job, lost her insurance, lost her housing, and left the rehab facility with nowhere to live except her car,” recalls Dennis. “She was told that Mel Trotter Ministries could help her. By her admission, she stayed in her car for many nights near MTM because her pride kept her from coming in and asking for help. One night she came in and said she found the help and the hope she so desperately needed. Tecca has now been employed and in her own home for almost five years.”
The truth is what sets MTM and their pioneering leadership apart is not falling into the trap of conformity. For example, while it would be easy to focus on just one area of their ministry to help individuals out of homelessness, such as housing first or faith first or programs first, they don’t do that. There is no singular focus at the expense of the whole. “We say yes to all of it together, not just to ONE area as the only single answer. We cannot afford to do that if we truly want to end homelessness forever. What sets us apart is our practice of never being satisfied, always looking to find better ways and do more, and trying to do that with humility,” says Dennis. “The reason we are unique is that no one else that we know of in the country is faith-based AND serves and values everyone.” MTM seeks always to find alternative ways that transcend the easy extremes of ‘this or that’ answers. This is the courage change requires. Not taking the easy way out is hard and intentional work. MTM could choose one area of focus and please many donors, or they could choose another area of focus and please a different set of donors. But they believe they are supposed to do the right thing—which always transcends one extreme or the other.
For 120 years, Mel Trotter Ministries has been the safety net in their community for those living in poverty or experiencing homelessness. “As long as that need exists, we will always be there to do our best to meet it. Yet, we have to dream of and work toward something more. Currently, we are working to build a dignified shelter where people can breathe and dream and think and not feel like they are in an institution or just a number,” adds Dennis. “We are designing and raising funds for a shelter that provides far more private living accommodations and empowers accountability and movement forward.” Mel Trotter Ministries is building a system whereby they believe one day they will have more staff working with people in housing than at the shelter. “People do better in homes. I believe we will have far more success when we lessen the shelter population and increase those in housing receiving services in a real-life environment,” says Dennis. “This is the change we seek every day.”