Amazon CEO delivers big bucks to end homelessness | News

“Excited,” is a word Trisha Kauffman used repeatedly to express her glee at the news: Solid Ground was selected to receive a $1.25 million grant from the Bezos Day 1 Families Fund. 

Launched in 2018 by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, the fund issues annual leadership awards to organizations and civic groups doing “compassionate, needle-moving work” to provide shelter and hunger support to address the immediate needs of young families. 

Kauffman is executive director of the White Bear Lake nonprofit. She called the grant “transformational” in a Dec. 9 press release, adding that “Solid Ground is excited and so grateful to the Day 1 Families Fund for its generous support.”

Solid Ground’s mission is to prevent and end homelessness for families with children through housing, services and opportunity. The agency serves about 500 men, women and children every year in Ramsey and Washington counties. 

Solid Ground was invited to apply for the large grant, which is part of a $2 billion commitment from Bezos. “Of course, we jumped on it,” Kauffman said.

The fund works with an advisory board of homelessness advocates and leaders to select recipients, but she wasn’t exactly sure how they were picked. “I think they focus on areas where Amazon has business locations,” Kauffman said. This year, the Bezos fund provided $105.9 million in grants to 42 different nonprofits across the country.  

Solid Ground will use funds from the grant three ways over a span of several years:

• To expand the successful Homework Starts with Home program into Washington County. 

The program helps keep kids in their homes and focused on success in school instead of worrying where they’ll sleep at night. “We started the homework program because of the dramatic growth in the number of students who are either homeless or couch hop,” Kauffman said. “That’s a dangerous thing during a pandemic. More than ever, we have learned how important housing is to someone’s health and well-being.” 

• Shelter diversion. Solid Ground is working with Washington County to create a shelter diversion program. “It’s about keeping people out of shelters or unsheltered situations like living in a car or a park,” Kauffman explained. “There are a lot of good outcomes with diversion. It’s a cost-effective way to end homelessness.” 

• Hire a staff counselor who will work with folks struggling with mental illness and chemical dependency. “A lot of our participants struggle with that,” Kauffman said. “About two-thirds of our residents have some kind of disability, often mental illness or dependency. Many are struggling with the stresses of the pandemic and isolation.” 

With the Bezos Day 1 Families Fund grant, Solid Ground will achieve the following goals over the next three years, Kauffman said:

• Divert 115 families from shelter

• House 40 families with income-based rental assistance while they work to increase their income 

• Provide 120 families with mental and chemical health services

The nonprofit operates six housing and service programs including two East Metro Place apartment buildings in White Bear Lake, a 10-unit complex called Home Front for homeless veterans and three scattered site units. Volunteers help with goal planning, budget and tenant training, skill training, parenting classes and child tutoring. About 80% of families referred to Solid Ground last year secured housing. Overall, 100% of its referrals result in housing of some kind and 89% of the children attend school regularly. That number is low, Kauffman noted. Usually, they’re in the 95th percentile. “We are serving families with more trauma and other barriers,” she said.

One grateful recipient of Solid Ground’s services is Shron King, a single mother of three who found herself homeless in 2018. “In my 49 years of living, I have never been in a program where people are so honest and willing to help. Expanding this program (with the grant) will help so many more women and their children.”

King moved to Minneapolis from Chicago in 2016. She was referred to Solid Ground after losing her North Minneapolis apartment in 2018 and now lives in Little Canada. “Solid Ground gives women opportunities to help themselves,” she said. “They offer so many resources for us. There is so much moral support. Sometimes you need help.” An unemployed housekeeper, King added she loves the program. I don’t feel so alone, and they keep me encouraged.” 

It’s a good testimonial for a program with a daunting mission. The money will help families transition to a higher level of self-sufficiency. “It’s so exciting. You can never feel like you have enough resources to do what you know needs to be done,” Kauffman said. “I’m sure the money will go fast, but it’s truly transformative. It allows us to do things we would have never been able to do before.”

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