Hometown Hope: How Amazon is Paying Attention to Homelessness in Seattle and Beyond

Credit:  Andrey_Popov/shutterstock

Credit:  Andrey_Popov/shutterstock

“It’s permanent until homelessness is solved.” So remarked John Schoettler, Amazon’s real estate and facilities VP, to the New York Times after an announcement this spring that the company’s Seattle headquarters will incorporate a shelter for homeless families. It's an unconventional move for a tech giant, but Schoettler’s statement hit the right notes.

As we’ve seen, permanence and solvability are front-of-mind for some of today’s leading anti-homelessness funders. As big cities play host to thousands (or tens of thousands) of people roughing it in the streets, funders are looking to new methods—like permanent supportive housing, impact investing and advocacy—to stem the tide. More than that, in fact. With funders like the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the Melville Charitable Trust in the lead, the goal is now to solve homelessness, not just apply Band-Aids to an unfortunate inevitability.

Seattle’s homelessness crisis has drawn significant attention from some of the region’s tech leaders. Earlier this year, Paul Allen gave $30 million to construct permanent supportive housing in the area, as well as partnering with the city of Seattle to support homeless children. Through programs like its All Home campaign, the Gates Foundation has also dedicated a steady stream of funds to Washington anti-homelessness efforts. 

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Amazon, however, has a lighter philanthropic profile than companies like Microsoft and Google. The same goes for its founder, Jeff Bezos, who enjoyed a brief stint this year as the world’s wealthiest person. Bezos has been toying publicly of late with the idea of finally getting into philanthropy in a bigger way, but so far, that's all been talk. (Or tweets, to be more accurate.)

When it comes to homelessness, though, 2017 has seen a fair amount of real movement from Amazon, a company that casts a long shadow in its home city, and not always in a positive way.

The shelter is one part of that story. Originally housed in a former motel slated for demolition, the shelter was first conceived as a stop-gap measure. But Amazon’s new plan calls for a permanent shelter to occupy 47,000 square feet in a new office complex. Mary’s Place, a nonprofit that runs seven transitional shelters in Seattle, will get free rent and utilities for the space. 

In addition to the shelter in Seattle, Amazon is looking outside its home region on this issue, matching all donations (up to $1 million) to Friendship Place, a Washington, D.C.-based homeless direct service organization, through the end of 2017. Friendship Place calls the Amazon pledge the largest private donation it’s ever received. Amazon has also been working with FareStart, a nonprofit that provides homeless and low-income people with workforce training in food services. The company took the real estate route here, as well, donating 25,000 square feet of space to house an apprenticeship program.

Does this mean we’ll see a more anti-homelessness gifts from Amazon? It’s hard to tell. But the tech industry has gravitated toward the housing crisis recently. In the Bay Area, Salesforce’s Mark Benioff is leading the charge, collaborating with funders like Google, Ron Conway, and Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna to house homeless families. Facebook has also been in the news for its forays into housing development, which include affordable housing, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has also moved into this space in the past year. 

In the grand scheme of things, though, there’s a lot more that tech can and should do on housing, given that share prices are hitting an all-time high and an influx of affluent tech workers is a key factor driving up costs in metro areas like Seattle and San Francisco. 

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