Detroit homeless network gets $1.25M Bezos grant to aid families

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Homeless Action Network of Detroit has received the largest private donation in its 25-year history, the organization announced Wednesday: $1.25 million from the Day 1 Families Fund, created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

On Wednesday, the Bezos fund announced $96 million in grants to 32 nonprofits providing services to homeless families.

Tasha Gray, executive director of HAND, described the two-year grant as an opportunity to identify what works.

HAND will use the funds to test and research novel approaches to ending homelessness, and to make new hires.

Tasha Gray, executive director of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit, described the $1.23 million, two-year grant from the Bezos family as an opportunity to identify what works. HAND will use the funds to test and research novel approaches to ending homelessness, and to make new hires, she said.

One or two people will be hired to work in the area of family homelessness. Another one or two will join as contract researchers. That means three or four people will join the staff of 16, at least temporarily, she said.

About $250,000 of the grant funding will be kept in-house for the staff expansion, Gray said. The remaining $1 million will be granted to Detroit nonprofits, with a focus on new ideas to address homelessness. 

"We will be digging into our data and the analytics around family homelessness," Gray said Wednesday. "The money will help us do research, which is really exciting because you normally don't have research money, especially not with our federal funding. So we're really excited to be able to learn what is working, and how can we make improvements that really help our families."

HAND was founded in 1996, and describes itself as "a hub for homelessness data, resources and change" in Metro Detroit. 

HAND is not a service provider. It applies for homeless grants for the Detroit region and passes that money on to other organizations. HAND works with more than 50 agencies that provide shelter, transitional housing or permanent supportive housing and street outreach services. 

HAND also operates the Homeless Management Information System, a database on "who is homeless in our community, what their needs are, and what is working to address those needs," according to HAND's website.

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The $1.25 million donation will fund that work, but also a study of other methods to attack homelessness, the type that government grants don't cover.

Gray cited an example of someone without a home locally, but with family a bus ride or flight away, willing to take them in. A private grant, she said, allows a nonprofit to pay for the ticket. 

"We'll be able to beef up the services they're providing, and fill in gaps that government money doesn't cover," Gray said. 

There are about 300 family beds at shelters in Detroit, Gray said. That compares to roughly 700 for single adults.

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HAND doesn't yet know how big its grants will be from the $1 million, but Gray said "we want to see real impact, and we're not trying to spread it too thin."

In addition to family homelessness, another focus is diversion from homelessness before it starts, Gray said."Once you get in that system, it's much harder to get out," Gray said.

The local grant process will open up in 2022. 

"What we're hoping is that we'll be able to get other investors who want to put some money toward this," Gray added.

Detroit had 7,811 homeless people in 2020, down 22% from the 10,006 tallied a year prior, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

But with the pandemic came a national moratorium on evictions owing to back rent.

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Gray said that inquiries for housing are up since that moratorium was lifted, and that it's too early to say whether the final 2021 numbers will look more like 2020 or 2019.