From Humble Roots
Depressed and unable to hold a job, Well House founder Marian Clements found refuge within a Quaker community. Inspired by their constant positive attitudes, Marian lifted herself out of her negative situation and in 1977, determined to stand on her own feet as well as help others in a similar situation, purchased an 1879-era home near the intersection of Cass and Pleasant Street in Grand Rapids, MI. The cost? $350. She called it Well House.
“I didn’t want to be at the end of my life and say I’d done nothing with it.”
The inspiration for the name Well House, was Wallhouse located in Torpichen, Scotland. Wallhouse belonged to Marian’s family for more than three hundred years until its sale in 1904, and offered ‘protection and refuge.’ In keeping with the mission of the original Well House, Marian opened her home to others in need of comfort and protection.
An Urban Homesteader
Marian’s style of living emphasized living gently on the earth and with each other, so she built her home around this concept, demonstrated by her refusal to have electricity in her home. Gradually, her influence in the community lead to a change in city housing code, allowing a single-family home owner to live without electrical power. Marian repaired her home using recycled materials, and heated it with a wood furnace. She showered in her greenhouse and composted under the sink, recycling water to use in the greenhouse garden. She kept goats for milk and cheese, and maintained a garden growing alongside the house. She purchased an adjacent lot for $1 and planted fruit trees, and used a 55-gallon metal drum to create a sawdust commode, in which the sawdust organically decomposed waste in an environmentally friendly way. What’s more —she did all this on an SSI stipend.
Marian’s lifestyle eventually ran into problems. In 1982, she was required to upgrade plumbing by replacing the sawdust commode with cement brick containers and install a gray water system and an overflow line from the system to the city’s storm-water system. Marian had 45 days to comply or spend that same amount of time in jail. She did not comply within the 45 days and ended up spending five days in jail. Stating her case, Marian’s lawyer said, “She has demonstrated that enforcement for enforcement’s sake of rules and regulations which seek apparent conformity for conformity’s sake perhaps is an inappropriate standard.”
The Community Expands
In 1991, the Well House community expanded with the purchase of a second house, and in 1992, the city of Grand Rapids donated a third home—in an unusual manner. The home was scheduled for demolition, but Marian requested that the money allocated for its demolition be used to move it to the Well House campus, where it was renovated using funds from area supporters.
In 1994, Marian received the Jefferson Award for Public Service, garnering her national recognition for her long-term dedication to help others. Unfortunately, in 1996, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she fought for a year, entering the hospital only one day prior to her passing. Marian Clements literally helped others until the day she died.
The Mission Continues
Well House of Grand Rapids restored and opened its 16th home in late 2019. We are committed to making each tenant’s stay a time to rest and to set directions in safe surroundings. In total, over 5,500 men, women, and children from all walks of life have called the Well House community home; some for a couple of months, others for several years.
Starting in March of 2020, as COVID-19 took hold in Michigan causing widespread uncertainty, Well House ramped up additional support initiatives for our tenants and neighbors. Our small emergency food pantry was quickly expanded with the generous support of many individuals and organizations in West Michigan. Food items are added to household staples to create pantry boxes to be shared with our community.
“Being of service is about being accessible and flexible. When needs change, the service should change to address the new circumstances. Stable housing—especially during a public health crisis—is more effectively encouraged if food insecurity is minimized.”
– John Glover, Executive Director, Well House