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2009 Behavioral Health Champion: John Van Camp

November 1, 2009
by Dennis Grantham, Senior Editor
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Position: President and CEO

Organization: Southwest Solutions, Inc.

Location: Detroit, Michigan (http://www.swsol.org)

Services: Behavioral healthcare, juvenile justice, family literacy, supportive housing for the homeless, residential and commercial development, community organizing, property management, Housing Opportunity Center, and Center for Working Families.

Staff: 300

In 1973, John Van Camp, still a graduate student, began work as a community organizer at the Southwest Crisis Center, a tiny, grant-funded mental health agency founded by working-class residents of southwest Detroit. The son of two social activists-his mother a founding member of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, his father a contemporary of Walter Reuther-Van Camp instinctively appreciated the center's mission.

“What compelled me was how the stigma of mental illness led to the abrogation of civil rights,” recalls Van Camp. “The center was a place where an activist, concerned about social justice, could make a difference.”

And what a difference! Today, Southwest Solutions has grown into not one, but two large organizations. One is a community mental health and wellness corporation that provides mental health, crisis, juvenile justice, supported housing, and family literacy services to thousands of Detroit residents. The second is a real-estate and economic-development corporation that has done over $100 million in development tax credits, renovated two dozen abandoned apartment buildings, rehabbed 40,000 sq. ft.-and counting-of commercial business space, and advocated for thousands of homeowners threatened by foreclosure. From a $200,000 budget and 10 staff in 1972, Southwest Solutions, Inc. has grown to employ 300 individuals with an annual budget exceeding $23 million.

For Van Camp, the organization's structure reflects its complex community. “We did a survey in the late '70s and found problem one for our clients was a lack of affordable or low-income housing. We asked around, ‘Who's doing this? Who wants to do this?’ But there was no one. We couldn't walk away, so we jumped in.”

The group began slowly by renovating abandoned apartment buildings to create housing for clients. Then, it looked at affordable housing for working-class residents. Often, they found that ground-floor spaces could be renovated for commercial uses. Each site became a place where residents could thrive, but crime could not. Recognizing that housing alone doesn't make a community, “we began looking at everything else-economic development, transportation, education, business development,” Van Camp says. Recent projects involve a $20 million building rehab to create a 150-unit apartment complex for homeless veterans. Another involves conversion of a 50,000 sq. ft., Albert Kahn-designed cigar factory into an integrated primary care/behavioral health wellness center.

“You begin to see that most problems in society are so complex that they're beyond the reach of any one agency or government program. But you can become a player in the community by partnering with others to address them. In the end, you learn that a healthy community is a far more enduring safety net.”

Behavioral Healthcare 2009 November-December;29(10):12

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