CMHA newsletter profiles Southwest Solutions’ holistic model

November 19th, 2018
Front page of Community Mental Health Association of Michigan's Connections Newsletter (Fall 2018)

The fall edition of Connections, the quarterly newsletter published by the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan, features a lengthy article on Southwest Solutions and its evolution into a holistic model of improving lives and neighborhoods. The article is written by Clint Galloway. Clint interviewed John Van Camp a few months after John retired as President and CEO of Southwest Solutions, after a 45-year career at the organization. Clint drew from the interview with John as well as research materials provided to him to write the piece.

The article has been slightly edited here to account for certain changes in our programs.

Leadership lies in the power of convening

Community Mental Health Association of Michigan (CMHA)
Connections Newsletter
Fall 2018

by Clint Galloway

Leaning over the table for emphasis and to assure I heard, John said, “Leadership lies in the power of convening.” This begged the question; what is the secret to that power of convening? Paraphrasing Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, John said, “Creating a compelling vision that others see as their own.” Later, John made clear that the ensuing vision for Southwest Solutions (SWSOL) was a shared vision articulated by numerous individuals to give expression to their passion, not one he created by himself. The vision is “to enhance the quality of life, success and self-sufficiency of individuals and families.”

John Van Camp

That was the key; it all began to come together. The late lunch in one of John’s favorite Mexican restaurants in Southwest Detroit was not only a treat, it was part of the “show and tell” whirlwind tour of a renaissance occurring in Southwest Detroit that was exhibit “A” of this shared passion. Commensurate with this style of leadership, John possesses some profound personal characteristics, three of which have be- come obvious to me: a sense of mission rooted in compassion, a vision constantly honed by a deepening appreciation for the complexity of life and what constitutes emotional well-being, and finally, humility. To again quote Jim Collins, commenting on the five levels of leadership: “The X factor of truly great leadership is humility – humility combined with a ferocious will for something bigger than your- self, humility in a very special way. I want to be very clear. These people are ambitious. They have tremendous energy. They are often exhausting. They never want to stop. They’re utterly relentless. Okay, they have all that, but here’s the difference. See, for a 5 versus a 4 – so, for a 4, all that energy and ambition and drive is about them. It’s about what they get. It’s about how they look. It’s about what they make. It’s about what accrues to them. It’s about whether they are the center. That’s a 4. [In] 5s, all that same level of energy and drive and ambition is channeled outward into a cause, into a company, into a culture, into a quest, into something that is bigger and more enduring than they are. Level 5s lead in a spirit of service, and they subsume themselves and sacrifice for that.” That’s John, and that helps explain the renaissance occurring in Southwest Detroit.

Somewhat acquainted with John’s legacy, I approached him about two years ago to write this story. After numerous unwarranted apologies by John, it dawned on me that to capture the essence of this story, I needed to go to Detroit and witness John’s work. A few days later I was swallowed up in the morning rush hour traffic on interstate 96 all the way into Detroit, exiting just before the Ambassador Bridge. My presence was another example of John’s engaging gift of bringing people to the table. John had meticulously planned a tightly packed eight hour schedule of “show and tell” during which I saw, heard, and even tasted what’s happening in Detroit. It has forever changed my impressions of not only what is occurring in Detroit, but how the same trans- formative strategies can and are fostering a new generation of healthcare that includes not just people based strategies but also incorporates place based strategies. Enhancing the quality of life requires more than addressing what afflicts our bodies; it also demands attention to the place where we live. Touring the streets of Detroit I saw both the signs of decay that we often associate with what has afflicted many metropolitan areas as well as the impressive transformations occurring under the style of healthcare leadership practiced by Southwest Solutions. These transformations are an integral part of the health and wellness of the residents.

It is becoming apparent, like all great sagas, this story will have many chapters. Perceived from a historical and cultural perspective it is just beginning. Its central theme is about yet another incredible transformation that is reshaping our institutions that are essential for healthcare as we appreciate more fully what it means to be healthy. A more inclusive and therefore complete term may be “emotional well-being.” When this becomes our focus, being healthy is not just about our bodies, as important as that is, it is also about the places where we live and work, having affordable housing in a safe and secure environment with access to essentials as well as a meaningful job and sufficient income. What needs to happen to diminish human suffering and enhance our emotional well-being must include the strategies that address the various dimensions of poverty in order to nurture a healing community. An understanding of this social dimension helps clarify and guide the transitioning of community mental health via the inclusion of a focus on the mental health of a community. If I live in a distressed neighbor- hood, my wellness requires more than treating the symptoms of a physical or psychological diagnosis. In fact, the former may well be a significant factor in the latter. Community development is equally essential for health. In this story, Southwest Detroit is ground zero but the mission, values, and strategies are applicable in any community.

Community Innovation

Before we venture further into the story of SWSOL, let me share some background John provided that has helped me understand community interventions thereby providing a frame- work for the transformation I witnessed. The winter 2004 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) included an article entitled, “Leading Boldly” that distinguished between technical and adaptive social problems. Technical problems are well defined and the solution is known in advance by a limited number of organizations. Applying their expertise, the resolution is described as isolated impact. An example of this is the development of a robust system of information technology that provides data to guide decision making. It could similarly apply to the construction or remodeling of a physical structure that houses these services. We can contract with competing organizations that have these skills to accomplish our tasks. In contrast to this, the answers to adaptive problems are unknown and no individual entity has the resources or authority to bring about the necessary changes. Improving community health is an adaptive problem. In order to reach an effective solution, it requires learning by all the stakeholders involved in the problem as well as changes in behavior to create a solution. We need to adapt! The results of this collaborative work are captured in the concept of collective impact. Southwest Solutions is aptly named as a response to an adaptive problem. The power of convening is recognition of the need for a collective impact.

The Evolution of Community Mental Health – the Need to Address the Mental Health of a Community

John provided some history, “In some ways you have to go back to the mid-sixties when President Kennedy started the conceptualization of community mental health.” Within that frame you can understand the beginnings of Southwest Solutions that was founded in 1970 by Monsignor Clement Kern (1907-1983), the legendary pastor of Most Holy Trinity in southwest Detroit. Kern was known as the “conscience of Detroit” because of his passionate commitment to helping the poor and disenfranchised. The church was located near downtown Detroit and was attended by bankers, judges, elected officials, and business people. Kern made sure that those who were homeless or had a mental illness or drug addiction were also included. He not only developed a community within the church, he also worked in the larger community. Clem Kern’s deep passion still animates the organization. The mission and values instilled at the start still compose who and why they are, it defines and assures their continued existence. What has changed is a growing appreciation for the complexities that enhance the quality of life, success and self-sufficiency of individuals and families and as this understanding has evolved, so has the shape and form of the solutions that pursue this vision.

SWSOL became a mental health agency in 1972. In the wake of deinstitutionalization, Southwest’s mission was to help the mentally ill live in the community by providing psychiatric counseling and medication. John has been with Southwest Solutions since its beginning, when the agency had a staff of only ten people. He started as an administrative assistant and be- came head of the organization in 1981. To comprehend the evolution of SWSOL we need to appreciate that John was a pioneer in understanding the efficacy of community development when this critical dimension of mental health was only beginning to be recognized. As such, he advocated for expanding the vision. In addition to the traditional array of counseling solutions he believed that reintegrating the mentally ill and homeless into the community required providing decent, affordable housing and support services. It became imperative for the organization to actively participate in neighborhood revitalization and economic development. What began as a compassionate response to the needs of those with mental illness, utilizing the knowledge and understanding dominant in the 60s and 70s, soon grew into a multi-dimensional cluster of solutions designed to address the emergent knowledge of the various dimensions of emotional well-being. One way to frame this journey is the struggle to find a balance between people based strategies and place based strategies, a struggle that is enjoined by every community mental health agency that progresses. A head turner for those still immersed in a bio-medical model is how a response initially focused on placing individuals housed in mental hospitals into the community has now adopted the long-term evaluative measure of making a significant contribution to reducing poverty. However, this is exactly what has happened as SWSOL pursued their mission that embraced the wedded values of diversity, equity and inclusion. They discovered that people who participate in multiple services which constitute communities of shared interests improve their lives faster. As more people achieve these connections, momentum builds and con- tributes to population health. By maintaining a focus on what is essential for quality of life; community mental health has been evolving by addressing the mental health of a community. It is important to understand that many of the additional skills and activities that address the mental health of a community may be best acquired by partnering; this is an adaptive problem that requires the concerted efforts of multiple stakeholders.


Today, Southwest Solutions is a family of nonprofit and for-profit corporations that offers more than 50 vital and community-building programs and employs more than 350 staff. It is a foremost provider of human and housing services and real estate development. Its programs impact 12,000 people a year and are nationally known and recognized for achieving outstanding results in improving lives and strengthening communities. The extraordinary growth of Southwest Solutions and its national renown as an effective integrated-services and community-building organization stem from John’s vision and knowledge linked to a style of leadership that enabled it to happen: the power of convening. In sorting out and addressing the various dimensions of emotional well-being, John has successfully convened, not only those in need of services, but also previously “siloed” experts, aligning their knowledge and resources. Their ongoing collective impact is impressive. As such, the corporate structures have mirrored the developing knowledge. Today there are three divisions: Southwest Counseling Solutions, Southwest Housing Solutions, and Southwest Economic Solutions.

A few moments of self-reflection may well be sufficient to appreciate the complexity of the organizational structures that have emerged to address quality of life and success of individuals and families in southwest Detroit. We are complex! One’s emotional well-being has many dimensions or facets, each being dependent on innumerable relationships/connections.


Southwest Counseling Solutions has served the Southwest Detroit community since 1970. They help more than 7,500 individuals and families a year, improving their lives through three Centers of Excellence: Adult Counseling Services; Children, Youth and Families; and Supportive Housing.

Southwest Counseling Solutions is a 501(c)(3) that employs more than 250 staff persons. They represent the fields of psychiatry, psychology, social work, counseling and education. Focused on inclusiveness, they have more bilingual counseling professionals than any other organization in Michigan, one in three of their counselors are bilingual. Their adult counseling program for Spanish speaking consumers is highly effective, with 98% avoiding hospital psychiatric services. In partnership with Covenant Community Care, SWSOL has developed a model of integrated physical and mental health services.

It is also one of Detroit’s largest providers of services to the homeless. In the last decade, they have placed into housing more than 1,900 homeless persons, and their housing retention rate after one year was at 94% which is one of the best in the nation. They are the lead agency to end homelessness in the city. The number of chronically homeless and homeless veterans has declined significantly in the past few years through the concerted and coordinated effort to address homelessness. Piquette Square is a 150-unit permanent supportive housing project that provides comprehensive support services, including access to healthcare, employment, benefits, and education. It is recognized as a national model in helping the veterans rebuild their lives and reintegrate into the community. Their Supportive Services for Veteran Families, (SSVF) has helped over 2,500 low-income veterans remain housed. In all its Centers of Excellence, Southwest Counseling Solutions is consistently recognized for its leadership, expertise and excellence. At the same time, they are known for their collaboration with numerous community partners to expand and enhance the services in all program areas.


Southwest Housing Solutions began in 1979 and is a leader in the planning, development and management of affordable housing and commercial property in Southwest Detroit. Their mission is to revitalize their community through collaborative, high-quality and innovative projects, and by promoting home ownership and resident-centered development initiatives. Their mixed-use projects stimulate commercial and cultural development.

They are the leading nonprofit multi-family developer of afford- able housing in Wayne County, having developed or renovated nearly 1,400 units in multiple neighborhoods, including single- family homes and multi-family apartments. More than 2,000 people reside in their quality, affordable apartments and townhomes. They have renovated and sold more than 650 homes in the metro area that were vacant, helping to reduce blight and revitalize neighborhoods. They offer programs for home buyer counseling, foreclosure prevention, financial coaching, mortgage lending, and no interest home repair loans. More than 2,500 families are homeowners due to their programs. One of every ten homes purchased in Detroit with a mortgage in 2016 was assisted by their home buyer programs.

Southwest Housing Solutions is a trusted nonprofit partner with a deep-rooted commitment to community development and a proven track record–
• $150 million of real estate development completed or in progress
• 26 multistory buildings restored for residential and retail use
• 225,000 sq ft of commercial space created or managed for lease
• Neighborhood Preservation Team helps residents better the community
• Developer of Piquette Square, a 150-unit project for homeless vets
• Acquired, renovated and sold more than 400 REO homes that were vacant and are now owner-occupied

They manage more than 600 apartment units that they rent to low and moderate-income families and individuals –
• Safe, affordable and quality housing in beautifully renovated buildings
• Housing and support services for homeless or special needs persons
• Permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless veterans at Piquette Square
• A full range of services and opportunities for their residents
• Property management consulting services for other property owners

Southwest Lending Solutions is a community-based lender offering services to help prospective homeowners overcome home financing challenges, plus highly competitive rates and terms.


The mission of Southwest Economic Solutions is to provide opportunities for individuals and families to achieve greater economic success. They promote and preserve homeowner- ship and advance financial literacy, and have become a leader in workforce development and adult literacy services. All their services are free for eligible individuals and families.

Their Adult Learning Lab helps adults improve their literacy, math and computer skills so they can be better qualified for employment.

ProsperUS Detroit is an entrepreneurial training and small business lending program for Detroit residents, particularly those who are African-American, Arab-American or Latino. By helping emerging entrepreneurs develop successful businesses, ProsperUS will help strengthen neighborhood economies, create jobs, serve residents with new goods and services, and cultivate community-based leadership. ProsperUS Detroit is the leading entrepreneurship program for aspiring minority business owners in the city. More than 850 ethnic and immigrant entrepreneurs have graduated from their program since it began in 2012, resulting in 150 new small businesses. ProsperUS has provided more than 1 million dollars in loans to 50 small businesses.

ProsperUS serves five neighborhoods:
• Cody Rouge
• Grandmont Rosedale
• Lower Eastside
• North End
• Southwest Detroit

The Center for Working Families (CWF) is based on a promising national concept and is designed to help low-income families reach financial stability, access income supports, develop educational and employment opportunities, build wealth, and move up the economic ladder. Participants are assisted by a financial coach, workforce development coach and benefits coach.

Financial coaching helps participants manage income, reduce debt, review credit, and plan for a more successful economic future. They offer one-on-one financial coaching and financial capability workshops.

They offer a variety of programs to help a family buy a home or keep their home. Their agency is HUD-approved, and their professional counselors are MSHDA certified and NeighborWorks trained and certified. They have English/Spanish bilingual counselors available.

The foreclosure intervention counseling provided by Southwest Economic Solutions serves homeowners throughout the metro Detroit and tri-county area.

They offer home buyer education classes, pre-purchase counseling and financial coaching through one-on-one sessions, group workshops, and community events. They offer special programs to help aspiring homeowners qualify for incentives such as down payment assistance and low-interest home loans. They also offer assistance for current Detroit homeowners to apply for the City’s no-interest home repair loan program.

To address workforce development, they offer several pro- grams to help eligible participants obtain the skills, resources and opportunities they need for gainful employment. Earn+ Learn is an innovative and comprehensive model of workforce development that involves multiple partners working together to train, place and maintain participants in employment.

PATH (Partnership Accountability Training Hope) assists welfare applicants and recipients to become self-sufficient and integrated into the labor force, based on the workforce needs of Michigan’s current and emerging economy.


This incredible expansion of services has all been the result of a growth in understanding the components that constitute quality life, success and self-sufficiency of individuals and families. This burgeoning knowledge has enabled SWSOL to identify seven game changers. Retaining fidelity to the complexity we are as human beings, there is recognition that each game changer has a cascading effect, that is, each has an impact beyond its particular area of emphasis. This means that the various sectors and partners must align their strategies and objectives. Likewise, it means integrating services to address the interrelated needs of individuals and families, significantly increasing the likelihood of their well-being and success. We are more apt to retain effectiveness and relevancy if we focus on game changers rather than on the existing iteration of a pro- gram. In doing this, why has precedent over what. Instead of defending a program, we can ask, what are we doing to address this game changer? Are we making a difference? Where do we excel? What’s missing?

The seven game changers are:

  • Health
  • Housing
  • Income, Employment and Financial Empowerment
  • Early Childhood and Education
  • Transit
  • Community Security and Stabilization
  • Community Building and Engagement

A future article will focus more closely on these game changers and how they are indeed, having a significant impact on Southwest Detroit!

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