Amazon’s Bezos clicks on homelessness

A big new focus of his philanthropy will be innovators solving this acute social problem. The best are nonprofit volunteers equipped with special qualities of care that can heal the homeless from the inside out.

A homeless man leaves his camp near the skyscrapers of Los Angeles.

The world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, is shopping for solutions to homelessness. Last week, the founder of Amazon announced a special fund of around $1 billion to reward nonprofits doing “needle-moving work” in assisting young families without a home.

This use of Mr. Bezos’s personal wealth is a welcome addition to the billions already flowing from other private donors tackling a stubborn problem that even the most generous city governments find difficult to solve. For every 10,000 people in the United States, about 17 are homeless. Most of them are concentrated in urban areas.

Yet his philanthropy also illustrates the need for special qualities of care in dealing with the homeless – qualities such as trust and patience.

In Amazon’s home base of Seattle, for example, Mayor Jenny Durkan says solving the city’s “homelessness crisis” will require more than action by government. “It’s going to take businesses, philanthropists, neighborhoods, people of faith, and community organizations,” she said earlier this year. One big reason: Every three days, someone without a home dies in Seattle.

Faith-based groups provide nearly two-thirds of the emergency shelter beds in Seattle, based on a 2016 survey. Many also provide vital services such as health care and vocational training. Their success in getting homeless people to live independently rather than cycle in and out of shelters has saved Seattle taxpayers about $20 million over three years, according to a 2017 Baylor University study of 11 cities.

Why are congregation-based efforts so effective at dealing with this issue?

As one private social worker told the Baylor researchers, the key is to look into the heart of the homeless and work with them from the inside out. Volunteers must listen first to the stories of the homeless, reducing their isolation and lifting up their dignity. In a 2005 survey, about 50 percent of US cities cited domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness.

“People don’t become homeless when they run out of money, at least not right away,” the volunteer said. “They become homeless when they run out of relationships.”

Private groups can provide the stability of a relationship based on selfless, unconditional affection. This can give a homeless person the mental and moral strength to then accept living in a supportive, permanent home and move toward self-sufficiency.

Across the US, a strategy of “housing first” for the homeless has provided some relief to the problem. But to truly end homelessness rather than merely “manage” it will require investments in people dedicated to expressing the kind of compassion that will heal a homeless person’s life. Wealthy philanthropists can support such qualities of care. But first those types of volunteers must step up.

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