Meet the Once-Homeless Man Who Revolutionized How We Care for the Homeless
Allan Barsema purchased 136 untouched acres of land, framed by a pristine lake and river, in northern Ontario. To build a cabin, he had to haul in the materials bit by bit, using a boat, ATV, or his truck. It was a slow and arduous process, but when all was said and done, Barsema had a three-room hideaway, where he takes his grandson, Devyn, of whom he now has legal guardianship.
“I just don’t see retirement as a part of my future,” said Barsema, 67. “Why would we want to get to the point in life where we have the connections, the skills, resources, and knowledge, and then we just go play golf? Sometimes you look around, and everyone else is kicking back. Well, I don’t golf. So that doesn’t bother me.”
Barsema’s patience and drive has built more than a cabin. Once homeless himself, he’s helped build new lives for the destitute and disadvantaged in Rockford, Illinois, a city about three hours west of Chicago. His hard work has helped the city see a dramatic drop in homelessness.
He didn’t intend to help the homeless when he started out. Barsema moved into a vacant warehouse building in downtown Rockford in June 2000. The place was badly fire-damaged, but he could see the potential. He opened up his own construction company in the building, calling it Carpenter’s Place. But a strange thing happened just a couple of months in: A local café closed and left a destitute homeless population without a gathering place.
Barsema remembered what it was like to be homeless and at the end of his rope. He’d faced a series of challenges early in life—he’d lost everything after a struggle with alcoholism cost him his marriage, his home, and his real estate business. That led him to a mountaintop in Alaska, where he meant to commit suicide. His parents took him in and helped him rebuild.
Remembering this, Barsema immediately set aside a room at Carpenter’s Place for men and women to gather, eat doughnuts, and talk. A few months later, he shuttered the construction business and put all of his energy toward making Carpenter’s Place an all-encompassing social services agency.
Now, Carpenter’s Place is just one piece of a sprawling puzzle he’s assembled over the last 15 years, including revolutionary software, now called MPOWR, that connects multiple social services agencies to stop vulnerable people from falling through the cracks. By sharing information about the homeless population, agencies are able to keep up with the needs of people who struggle to care for themselves, often because of mental illness.
“My wife Cathy had somebody come in who went to a clinic and was prescribed something,” Barsema said. “But the client had no way to buy it. Because of the software, Cathy was able to see the prescription and ask if he took it.”
Once she learned about the problem, she was able to get the man on an insurance plan to get the medication. “But it wouldn’t have been brought up if she didn’t see it,” Barsema said. “We’re providing a central nervous system so all the organs can communicate for a healthy body.”
This “central nervous system” is used by 1,250 social services workers who oversee more than 250,000 people’s lives, and Rockford proved the perfect testing ground for it. In 2009, more than 33 percent of Rockford citizens lived below the poverty line—15 percent more than the state average. In 2013, that number had decreased to 25 percent. States and communities all over the country began adopting versions of the system built in Rockford to tackle their own poverty problems.
Barsema said the difference between his programs and others of pure benevolence is that he knows from experience that Band-Aid solutions don’t work.
“People caught in those patterns, that’s not generally where they want to be. Given the chance, most people would want to become happy, productive people in the community. We need to get beyond benevolence,” he said.
It’s this idea that led Barsema to focusing all his energy into connecting Rockford’s faith-based organizations into a central system, called One Body Collaboratives, for which he was awarded a Purpose Prize from Encore in 2010. He chose to funnel the generous monetary prize of $100,000 directly into MPOWR and One Body, keeping none of it for himself.
“I remember telling myself and other people I am not starting another organization,” he said, laughing. “But then I just have a deep feeling of being driven. Everyone is always looking for their purpose in life. I never suffered from that. Rockford is on a lot of negative lists, and we want to turn that around.”
And he is turning things around. Almost 350 churches and many other faith-based organizations in Rockford can be connected through One Body. And if a woman is released from prison, for instance, each church can provide their own specific level of assistance—job searches, child care, food benefits—without overlap, making better use of all resources to get people back on their feet.
Barsema sees every challenge like an experienced contractor would. He creates lists to keep his energy focused. He purposely doesn’t have a dishwasher to regiment a nightly routine of family dish washing. He sticks to a routine, helped along by his Swedish wife and grandson Devyn, whose ADHD requires the family to make solid plans and follow through to teach by example. But the trajectory of Carpenter’s Place was something he could never have foreseen, and he’s appreciative of the people who’ve supported the project and guided it to its natural state.
“I don’t do a lot,” he insisted. “I surround myself with the various specialties. If you really look at yourself and life, and what is it that I’m supposed to be doing, the past experiences all seem to blend together. I wouldn’t want to go through the mountaintop experience again. But I can definitely make use of it.”