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Flagstaff Shelter Services receives $2.5 million chunk of $2 billion awarded by Bezos Day 1 Families Fund

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Flagstaff Shelter Services announced Tuesday that it is the recipient of the largest private gift in the history of the Bezos Day 1 Families Fund, which was launched by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2018.

The local emergency shelter program is receiving $2.5 million to combat homelessness in northern Arizona. They’re planning to put the money to work right away, by purchasing and converting a hotel into a long-term housing facility.

The infusion of funds comes as rent costs are rising and families are grappling with insufficient incomes. The new hotel-turned-shelter will be able to serve more than 100 people at a time. It will also allow the current 58-unit Crown facility to pivot and become family housing exclusively.  

“We had the opportunity to buy another hotel,” recounts Ross Schaefer, executive director of Flagstaff Shelter Services (FSS). “We knew that our model worked. We knew we needed it, but we were like, ‘How are we going to pay for this?’ Then we got an email from the Day 1 Fund saying, ‘You’ve been selected for this award.’ It was the kind of moment when your hair stands up ... for the first time in my professional career, I feel like we are on the cusp of solving things.”

Schaefer said she has no doubt that emergency shelters will likely always be necessities, and has no delusions of grandeur. Still, this represents a spring-loaded step in the right direction.  

“We have really concrete ways to solve this for people, to get them out of homelessness quickly,” Schaefer said.

Dispersed over a five-year period, the grant funds should also allow FSS to hire more staff, expand outreach capacity and continue work on the front lines of Coconino County’s struggle with homelessness.

“This grant will allow us to scale up our efforts to address the complexities of family homelessness significantly,” Schaefer said. “What excites me most is what it means for the future of the hundreds of families this will serve. The investments we will be able to make in housing, outreach, staffing, and tailored wraparound programs for individuals and families are tremendous; this is only the beginning of a new chapter for our organization.”

FSS did not apply for the money they’ll receive. Instead, Day 1 Families Fund identified the Flagstaff shelter and offered the award independently.

“The Day 1 Family Fund is a collective group of national experts in the field. They were tasked by Jeff Bezos and his team to find best practice organizations across the country that aligned with their values and with national research,” Schaefer said.

They landed on FSS.  

That speaks volumes about the work the shelter is currently doing, and Schaefer points out, is a commendation of FSS’ current and past supporters and donor investments.

“Eight years ago when I started we were a seasonal operation. We made the decision to go year-round and we haven’t closed since then,” Schaefer said.

The shelter operates on a $4 million budget. That number might look large on its face, but when stacked opposite the costs of running a 24-hour, 365-day operation that turns virtually no one away?

“It’s bare bones,” Schaefer said. “We work with pennies to get this done. The number of people we serve each day compared to what we’re spending is huge. To level those things up, will make our services stronger. This is the validation that says an investment in us is an investment in an organization that is really doing what is proven to work.“

The Flagstaff shelter is just one of the organizations the Day 1 Families Fund is bolstering after making a $2 billion commitment to funding existing nonprofits that support families experiencing homelessness. Some of the selected grantees specifically focus on housing solutions, others are nonprofit tier-one preschools in low-income communities.

Sierra Ferguson can be reached at sierra.ferguson@lee.net

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