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The Business of Giving

Exploring philanthropy, non-profits and socially motivated business, from the Gates Foundation to your donation. A fresh look at the economy of good intentions.

September 25, 2009 at 2:50 PM

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Homeless are economic assets, says Gates Foundation CEO

Posted by Kristi Heim

Seattle's business community should consider homeless people as valuable assets, and tackle homelessness not as charity but as an investment in the future, the head of the world's largest philanthropy said today.

"Homeless people aren't just a problem to be minimized or cleared away," Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes said, addressing more than 900 members of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. "They have amazing potential."


Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes has taken part in the One Night Count of the homeless population in Seattle for several years.

The chamber's new slogan for "It's Time for Business" could apply to the problem of homelessness, too, he said.

Half of Seattle's homeless population are parents in their prime productive years, with children in their prime development years.

In fact, homeless families tracked by the University of Washington had better high school graduation rates than the Seattle School District, he said.

"Most homeless families are right on the edge of being a productive part of a healthy community and a thriving economy," he said.

Raikes called for a new approach that would take some money being spent on shelters and put it into permanent homes, a careful needs assessment for each family instead of a standard response for everyone, more affordable housing, and an emphasis on preventing people from becoming homeless, such as short-term rent subsidies.

Seattle is the second most expensive metropolitan area in the country, he said. Building more affordable housing would be good for the construction industry and add jobs.

In King County, there are about 10,000 people who are homeless, but tens of thousands more barely able to keep themselves afloat. They earn half the median income and spend half of that on housing.

Close to 50,000 people are "living on the border of economic stability and destitution," he said.

Given a safe place to sleep, combined with services to address the root cause of becoming homeless, three-quarters of the 1,500 families in a Sound Families program moved on to permanent stable housing, Raikes said.

He called for expanding that model, and asked business people to volunteer their ideas and expertise and to support local government leaders to put homelessness on the political radar.

Note: Yes, Seattle really is the second most expensive metropolitan area in the country, based on Federal Housing Finance Agency 2Q 2009 purchase prices, beating out New York and second only to San Jose/San Francisco.

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