The last time worldwide homelessness was surveyed by the United Nations was in 2005, when more than 100 million people did not have a place to call home. In 2015, a Habitat for Humanity study estimated 1.6 billion people around the globe lacked sufficient housing.

COVID-19 is worsening the problem, a fact not lost on a group of West Coast-based YPO members. When a two-day summit on homelessness expecting 100 YPO members in Los Angeles in May 2020 was canceled because of travel restrictions and the prohibition on large gatherings, a few dozen connected remotely to discuss the problem anyway.

What started as multiple conversations on Zoom during those early months of shelter-at-home orders evolved into DignityMoves, a nonprofit that builds interim supportive housing communities for people experiencing homelessness. What sets DignityMoves apart from traditional shelters is that everyone gets their own room, with a door that locks.

YPO member and impact investor Elizabeth Funk explains, “Group shelters aren’t the best solution for many people. Their belongings get stolen, and they can’t bring their pets. Seventy-two percent of our homeless in California are unsheltered, so they end up pitching a tent in a parking lot.”

California saw its homeless population grow by 10,270 to 161,548 individuals from January 2019 – January 2020. Funk took a break from her ‘day job’ to lead the group, YPO members from various industries, to reduce that number.

“If we’re going to solve the problem of homelessness, we need more permanent housing. A lot of smart people are spending time on that,” Funk says. But, as she explains, permanent housing takes years and USD700,000 per unit, with time and money being in short supply.

That’s why DignityMoves chose to focus on temporary housing – filling the gap between homelessness and permanent lodging.  Using prefabricated, modular construction, they developed a way to build interim housing for a fraction of the cost of permanent housing – that can be completed in months, not years.

One of the group members is YPO spouse and former Silicon Valley executive Amy Wright, who works at LifeMoves, the largest provider of homelessness services in Silicon Valley. The group stepped in and helped her organization build temporary housing through the state’s Homekey program.

“Cities were scrambling to find hotels,” explains Funk, “and someone pointed out there was nothing that said it had to be hotel rooms. That’s when we looked at modular manufacturing.”  LifeMoves built their project in Mountain View with 100 units in just a few months.  

“We knew we had a successful model then,” Funk says. “And it was clear we needed to do more.” 

Dignity Moves has now replicated that model, and has projects underway in Santa Barbara and San Francisco, both of which will open in early 2022.  Projects are also planned in Rohnert Park in Sonoma County and the City of Alameda, with several other projects in the works. DignityMoves is scaling quickly — it is now officially a 501c3 and has hired two employees.  

In addition to the modular, temporary housing solving the time and money problem, it also avoids the real estate challenge. The organization works with municipalities to find land that may be awaiting development and set up their communities there. 

“We can borrow a parking lot or empty investment property for 4-5 years,” Funk explains. “And if it gets developed years down the road, we can relocate the homes.”

More than a roof

The communities DignityMoves builds are similar to a college dorm environment, where individuals have their own rooms but share communal bathrooms. “They have locks on their doors to keep their possessions safe when they’re not there,” Funk says. ‘That’s key. There are reasons these folks are on the street – they are in survival mode. We get them to a safe place, get them stabilized so they’re not worried about their next meal, and they can recover from their trauma and start to build more permanent exits out of homelessness.”

While DignityMoves provides the housing, it partners with social service agencies to offer the residents support services to help them succeed and stay off the streets. Services include job counseling and addiction treatment, among others. 

“We create the space where the service agency can do their magic,” she adds.

Modeling success

The group’s success shows the impact highly motivated individuals who care about a cause can have. DignityMoves’ board members and advisers represent various industries – including real estate and construction, but also marketing, consumer goods and food. She says her YPO peers all manage different aspects, from sourcing materials, to solving supply chain issues, community outreach and fundraising. 

“We hope we have set an example, written a playbook, so that others across the country, around the globe, can replicate this,” Funk says. 

She adds, “We thought we’d do one project, but he had no idea this was going to become what it has.”