Tough Problem, Deep Pockets: Parsing Bezos Philanthropy's Initial Steps on Homelessness



Homelessness is one of the most visible and heartrending reminders of how deeply inequality cuts right now. For those of us living in expensive cities, it’s become especially common to see the affluent and the destitute sharing sidewalks. Philanthropy’s response, meanwhile, has been hit or miss, with bright spots like permanent supportive housing and wraparound services overshadowed by the problem’s sheer magnitude.

Whatever you think about Amazon, it’s hard not to see Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos’ stratospheric wealth as another symbol of our unequal age. The couple, married for 25 years as Amazon rose to retail dominance, recently announced their intention to divorce amicably. The question of who gets what is still up in the air. But with over $130 billion on the line, it’s safe to say both Jeff and MacKenzie’s names will appear in IP’s coverage for some time to come.

As Jeff mentioned in his tweet on the divorce, the announcement follows “a long period of loving exploration and trial separation” that was likely already underway when the couple finally got around to large-scale philanthropy late last year with the $2 billion Bezos Day One Fund. Your guess is as good as ours on exactly how the divorce will affect Bezos giving in 2019, but last fall’s preliminary grantmaking is still our best window into the philanthropic disposal of the world’s largest fortune. 

Through the Day 1 Academies Fund, as we’ve written, the Day One Fund is applying a businesslike approach to early childhood education funding, with the intention of building up a network of new preschools. But on family homelessness, the fund’s other priority, a more conventional strategy won out. Last November, the Day 1 Families Fund gave a total of $97.5 million to 24 organizations providing a number of services for homeless families, “from emergency shelter and safe short-term shelter for families to get on their feet, to access and support for permanent housing and support services that help families move forward together.”


Homelessness may be at crisis levels in coastal cities like Amazon’s home base of Seattle, but philanthropic capital to address it is still relatively scarce. And almost overnight, the Day 1 Families Fund has emerged as one of the largest grantmakers in this space—if not the largest. It’s yet another example of how quickly the funding landscape around an issue can change if a new mega-giver takes a keen interest.

These initial Bezos grants—along with the promise of more—are welcome stimulus for a section of the funding community that’s energized, but needs more buy-in from deep-pocketed donors. 

The 24 recipients, located in towns and cities across the country, each received either $2.5 million or $5 million. They include several nonprofits in Amazon’s native Pacific Northwest, like the Refugee Women’s Alliance in Seattle, Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, and JOIN in Portland, Oregon. The twin sites of Amazon’s planned second headquarters are represented by New York’s Urban Resource Institute, which operates a shelter in Long Island City, and Northern Virginia Family Service, located close to Crystal City, the other headquarters site.

Awardees operate in a range of cities including San Francisco, Cleveland, Omaha, Chicago, Houston and Phoenix. Coastal cities are represented, but so are plenty of other places. Several charities associated with religion got funds, including Catholic archdiocese charities in New Orleans and Miami, as well as Salvation Army charities in Houston and Charlotte, North Carolina. 

In addition to providing shelters and support services, many Day 1 Families Fund grantees move families off the streets and into transitional or permanent housing. Anti-homelessness advocates often refer to those strategies as “housing first.” Grantees adhering to the housing first mantra include Abode Services in Fremont, California, Community Rebuilders in Grand Rapids, Housing Families First in Henrico, Virginia, L.A. Family Housing in North Hollywood, California, Simpson Housing Services in Minneapolis, and Hamilton Families in San Francisco. 

Other awardees offer services that respond to underlying causes of homelessness. One example is the District Alliance for Safe Housing (DASH) in Washington D.C., which provides housing solutions for domestic violence survivors. Another is Cleveland’s FrontLine Service, offering crisis hotlines and mental health services along with shelter and housing options. 

It remains to be seen whether the Day 1 Families Fund will continue funding across a broad front or focus more narrowly on a particular approach. Amanda Andere of Funders Together to End Homelessness told us for a previous piece that a lot of homelessness philanthropy remains “program-rich, systems-poor.” But at the same time, she said, recent years have seen more funders embrace systems-based and intersectional approaches like permanent supportive housing programs, public-private partnership initiatives, and policy advocacy. Andere served on an advisory board to the Day 1 Families Fund that helped select the initial grantees. She joined Susan Thomas of the Melville Charitable Trust and representatives from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the Houston Coalition for the Homeless, the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, and elsewhere. 

That panel also included Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place in Seattle. While Mary’s Place wasn’t on the nation-spanning list of awardees receiving this initial money, the nonprofit occupies a prime place in Jeff Bezos’ concept of anti-homelessness philanthropy. As he related in September, the Day 1 Families Fund’s vision statement, “no child sleeps outside,” comes “directly from the inspiring Mary’s Place in Seattle.” 

Back in 2017, I wrote about the nonprofit’s involvement with Amazon corporate philanthropy as the operator of several transitional shelters in Seattle, including one space it rents for free from the e-commerce giant. That story, while heartening, wasn’t free of controversy. As Alex Daniels relates in an in-depth piece for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, many called Amazon’s Seattle largesse into question when the company went to bat against a city “head tax” on major businesses meant to offset rising rents—driven in part by tech salaries—by funding affordable housing. Amazon labeled it a “tax on job creation.” After initial passage by Seattle’s City Council in June, the bill was soon repealed.

As other commentators have pointed out, that saga reinforces the idea that Bezos prefers social good by private means over an approach better integrated with public sector solutions. “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” he said on Twitter in September, referencing Day One’s early childhood component. “Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”

Amazon’s back-and-forth in Seattle also brings to mind last fall’s noisy debate between tech leaders Marc Benioff, Jack Dorsey and others over Proposition C, a November ballot measure taxing big business to support San Francisco’s homeless. Benioff, a frequent housing donor and innovator in tech giving, saw the measure as crucial for advancing public-private solutions to homelessness. Dorsey objected. The measure passed by a wide margin, but the actual funding remains tied up in court.

As they move forward in work on homelessness, the Day 1 Families Fund may want to join Funders for Housing and Opportunity (FHO), a philanthropy-led attempt to think bigger about the housing crisis. While it’s still fairly new and its impact hard to gauge, the collaborative includes some of the biggest names in anti-homelessness and anti-poverty giving—Ford, Annie E. Casey, Gates, MacArthur, Kresge and Melville, to name a few. The most exciting thing about FHO, in my opinion, is that its members recognize the need for fundamental changes to how we think about housing. 

As the Ford Foundation’s Xavier de Souza Briggs told us last year, a reframed narrative about housing might involve marrying “enlightened self-interest with a moral case—the combination of deciding that this is not only insensible; it’s also deeply unjust.” With that in mind, just as criminal justice reform has become one of the few issues with any semblance of bipartisan potential in a stalemated D.C., the housing crisis may provide avenues for nonprofits, movements, governments and the private sector to get in sync.

That’s usually easier said than done, sure, but we’ve already seen that relatively modest philanthropic capital can make a real dent in cities’ homeless counts, or cultivate activism that changes the legal landscape. Even on the Bezos level, philanthropists alone can’t build their way out of the wider housing affordability crisis. But there’s no reason to believe these custodians of unthinkable wealth can’t fund shelters while also backing the policies and movement organizing that could eliminate the need for shelters one day.