The Road Home has been at the center of a long and awkward transition in the Salt Lake area’s homeless services model. But on Thursday – the same day the group closed its downtown facility for good – the nonprofit announced it had won a $5 million grant from the Day 1 Families Fund, a charity backed by Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos.
“It kind of feels like the Oscars for us,” said Michelle Flynn, executive director of the Road Home. “It’s meant to infuse an organization with some real stability and some cornerstone strength to move the needle in a significant way.”
The Road Home was one of 32 organizations across the country selected by an advisory committee of national leaders in ending homelessness. The Day 1 Families Fund is part of a larger effort launched by Bezos in September 2018 to fight homelessness and bring education opportunities to low-income communities.
Flynn said the grant is unique both because of how large it is and for the relatively few strings attached. The major catch is that it must be spent on family efforts. It can’t be used on facilities that help single men or women, such as the new men’s-only shelter in South Salt Lake, which opened earlier this week and is operated by the Road Home.
The funds will mostly go to bolster the Road Home’s housing programs for families and a new data system to better match people with housing opportunities, Flynn said.
The grant is a big vote of confidence in the nonprofit, which faced criticism over the decision to close its 1100-bed shelter in downtown Salt Lake City. Critics voiced concerns that the region’s three new shelters won’t be enough to house the hundreds of people experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake County.
Despite challenges, Flynn said the transition – both within the Road Home itself and the region’s model overall – is the right move. It involves a more coordinated effort between state, county, and local leaders, along with a greater focus on placing people into more permanent housing, rather than simply getting them off the streets.
Still, that kind of region-wide shift is rare, she said. And a big upheaval.
“We all should be concerned,” she said. “These are people's lives, [who] are used to coming down to this building and getting shelter for the night. And we’re watching what’s happening. We’re seeing where people are staying and we’re problem solving every single day.”