John Van Camp: A career in social justice

June 12th, 2017
Photo by Larry Peplin Southwest Solutions CEO John Van Camp plans to retire next May after 45 years with the nonprofit.

John Van Camp: A career in social justice: Southwest Solutions CEO to cap 45-year tenure next year

Sherri Welch
Crain’s Detroit Business
June 11, 2017

Southwest Solutions CEO John Van Camp got a taste of social justice work at the early age of 10, when he and fellow Cub Scouts staged a sit-in at an ice cream parlor in his hometown of Romeo.

The shop wouldn’t serve black people, so Van Camp’s mother — a founding member of the Detroit Federation of Teachers in Detroit and of the first bi-racial Cub Scout pack in Macomb County — organized the sit-in. As employees there came up to the white children to ask if they’d like something, they’d reply, “No, please, serve my friend first.”

The protest lasted only a half-hour, but it caused a stir, Van Camp says. And he proudly notes that the shop changed hands three months later — and the new owner served everyone.

Van Camp, who announced last week that he will retire next May to cap a 45-year career at Southwest, will tell you his parents, native Detroiters and social activists, sparked his interest in improving the world.

The Van Camp family moved out to Romeo around 1948 when UAW pioneer Walter Reuther and others put up money to buy an apple farm to launch what was supposed to be a commune, but it never came to fruition.

Instead, the farm which sat near a lake served as a retreat area for many city youth of all races, union leader Walter Reuther and his family, other activists and his parents’ African American, Latino and Arab friends.

Van Camp attended the newly-founded Oakland University, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science before securing a job as a rigger on steel towers in Germany, thanks to his parents’ friends at the United Nations. He left that to travel to India with the Peace Corps, worked in Vietnam and toured through Europe before returning to the U.S. and earning a master’s in social work from Wayne State University.

It was there he met Lutheran pastor Bill Mouldwin, who became chairman and then executive director of the newly founded Southwest Solutions and hired Van Camp as his assistant at the mental health agency. He was attracted to the agency’s efforts to seek social justice for the mentally ill and joined the agency in 1973, just a year after it was founded as a mental health agency, in the wake of deinstitutionalization happening at that time. He was named executive director just eight years later and set the agency on a track to delivering over 50 programs at last count.

When developers wouldn’t build housing for Southwest’s mental health clients, the organization got in the housing development business, Van Camp said. With those programs in hand, it was a natural fit to move into helping house the homeless.

From there, Southwest expanded into myriad programs, from helping the mentally ill, homeless and unemployed to those hoping to buy a home or launch a new business in the city’s neighborhoods.

Van Camp spoke with Crain’s Senior Reporter Sherri Welch last week about the evolution of Southwest Solutions into one of the region’s largest, most complex nonprofits, the need for collaboration with others on complex problems and the biggest challenge facing his successor. His remarks have been edited for length and clarity.

Crain’s Detroit Business: Southwest Solutions launched as mental health agency. How did its work expand into housing?

We started in that area of treatment, but what I saw was to create that real continuum, first of all you have to be client-driven. What do clients say that they need? They said their number one need, beyond the treatment we were providing, was housing. Then we had to go out to the market to find out who is doing housing. And will they take our clients. Well, no one was offering housing to mental health clients coming out of Northville State Hospital. And no one wanted to do it. When you come back to a community-based board and you tell them (that), then they look at you in the eye and say, ‘I guess you’re going to figure out how to provide housing if that’s what they say they need.’ That was right in my sweet spot. We didn’t use the term social justice. It was opening doors, creating opportunities for the most vulnerable. Sometimes you had to build those doors, you had to knock on those doors a lot to get them to open because of the myths and the stereotypes.

CDB: How did you get into working with homeless populations?

John Van Camp: If you’ve got a robust mental health system and you’ve got housing, then you’re primed to create a system of care for people who are homeless. We’re one of the largest in Detroit, if not the largest, in the area of homelessness. Over the last 10 years, we have moved 1,700 people from homelessness to permanent housing. We’ve won awards from the National Council of Mental Health because 94 percent of the clients are housed one year later. One of the reasons we’re good in that space is not only the support services and the housing, but over the last seven to eight years we’ve become one of Detroit’s largest workforce development providers.

CDB: And from there you expanded into other areas?

Van Camp: Health is another example. The National Institute of Mental Health said adults with mental illness die 25 years before the general population. It’s one of the largest health discrepancies there are. It’s not so much the mental illness in and of itself; it’s because as a treatment system we’re not good enough yet to manage the changes in medication, so there’s ups and downs in their lifestyle because of that. If you have diabetes or depression and you require the stability of a treatment intervention, there’s some challenges to staying on medication with mental health issues. We looked for a long time for a health partner. Some of them, quite large, ran the other way because of our clients. It was clients who told us about partner Covenant Community Care, a free clinic on West Grand Boulevard. I asked if they were aware of becoming a federally qualified health center. They said yes. But it cost around $20,000 to write a good application. I went back to our board and said we need to put up $20,000 to help them write a good application. They got the designation about 10 years ago and today operate a clinic serving 10,000 people from Southwest’s building in the Chadsey Condon neighborhood near Livernois and Michigan.

Prosper Us is another example. We’ve got the TechTowns and others at a certain level. But these are people who have a passion, a drive, but they don’t have the skill set or the business plan. We’ve had over 700 graduates. It’s very intensive training for immigrant- and minority-owned businesses in the city. About 140 business we can directly attribute to the training out of Prosper Us in the last six years. There’s also a micro-loan program. Sister Pie is one of our graduates.

CDB: What has changed the most during your career with Southwest in terms of your work and the things influencing it?

Van Camp: When you’re working with people who don’t have self-sufficiency, there was the realization that treatment was not sufficient. If all you wanted to do was provide good treatment, fine. But I wanted to provide a good quality of life for that person and see how treatment is a part of that.

And then, there’s the absolute necessity to partner. As much as we’re in housing, we’re only one small part of housing. As much as we’re in workforce development or early childhood, we’re only one small part. You’ve got to partner. To move the needle on things you’ve got to align, get people aligned around a common mission and common metrics and a transparency of data.

CDB: What advice do you have for nonprofits working in the city right now?

Van Camp: We started off in one lane and now we’re in many lanes. You don’t just have to stay in your lane. But if you choose to stay in one lane, see the relationship between your lane and all of the others.

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