Stakeholder Business 

How Business Can Prevent Homelessness (Part 2 of 3)

Jul 21, 2023
A tightrope walker to depict the financial constraints that can easily lead to homelessness.

Can business curb homelessness? This company did. 

By Nathan Havey

Before reading Part 2 here, make sure to check out How Business Can Prevent Homelessness (Part 1 of 3).

The Financial Tightrope

When looking at how to prevent homelessness before it begins, we can see that there are numerous nonprofits and government programs at work here, too. Food banks help offset the cost of food so people can prioritize other bills, while emergency rent and utility assistance programs, as well as more traditional welfare programs, aim to help people stay on the financial tightrope on which the roughly 44 percent of Americans who have less than $400 in savings are currently balancing.

The problem with these efforts is that they are not set up for speed and ease. Decades of policies that sought to eliminate the misuse of these systems has created a bureaucratic maze difficult to navigate under the best of circumstances, and nearly impossible in the immediate aftermath of a sudden traumatic shock. This is why such shocks are so often the first step on the journey toward homelessness.

If you are a business leader with little (if any) actual experience with poverty, it can be really hard to wrap your mind around what nearly half of our neighbors are dealing with. That was certainly the case for John Ratliff, CEO of a call center called Appletree Answers. He and his team created a program initially to make their employees’ dreams come true, only to learn that many employees were struggling with the same shocks that, if remedied, could prevent homelessness before it begins.

The Parable of the Pothole

In their 2019 book The Healing Organization (a must-read recommendation from the Stakeholder Business team), Raj Sisodia and Michael Gelb include the following story about Ratliff’s company. 

On a chilly late-autumn day, Appletree’s CEO was driving to the office when she hit a pothole and blew out her front right tire and damaged the rim. Fortunately, she was a member of AAA, and they dispatched a tow truck that brought her to her Mercedes dealership nearby. A “courtesy car” drove her to work, and she had insurance to cover the cost of the repair. She arrived about 90 minutes late and was met by staff who offered her sympathy and got her coffee.

On another day, a low-level customer service representative was driving to work and hit the same pothole. She also blew out her right front tire and damaged the rim. Not being a member of AAA, she had to call a tow company and then a friend to drive her to work, since she couldn’t afford a cab. She arrived at work barely three hours late and was given a reprimand by her supervisor who docked her pay and told her that she would lose her job if she was late again. Moreover, the repair for her damaged rim and new tire would cost more than she brought home in four full eight-hour days. With $160 in the bank, what was she to do? How would she even get to work the next morning? How would she drop her kids off at school?

An Attitude Gap

Once Ratliff’s team recognized the stark difference between the company’s attitude toward executives versus hourly workers, they began looking for opportunities to right the situation. 

Ratliff’s team initiated a program called Dream On — essentially a Make-a-Wish-type program for their employees. The idea was that anyone could submit a dream and the company leaders would try to make it come true. They asked, “Please tell us the story behind your dream and tell us why it is so meaningful to you.” People could also ask for help with life’s potholes.

When they started the Dream On program, the executives who conceived it were patting each other on the back for being geniuses. But there was no response for the first 10 days.

After promoting the program internally, Ratliff’s team finally received their first submission from one of their employees in St. Louis. She wrote, “I’m a single mom. My ex-husband stopped paying alimony two weeks ago. I got evicted from my apartment a week ago, and my two kids and I are living in my car. I’m so sorry, but I need help. I just can’t see my kids like this anymore.”

Here again we see the pattern that, if interrupted, can prevent homelessness before it starts. 

Upon reading this, John’s eyes welled up. He says; “I felt a deep sense of shame. I asked myself, ‘What kind of company am I running here? A mother who works here full-time is homeless, and it took her this long to tell us?’"

Dreams Fulfilled

If your company employs people at or near the minimum wage, or its salaried equivalent, it’s likely that at least a few and possibly more of your employees are unhoused even as you read these words. What Ratliff did next is something you can do, too.

Ratliff and his team arranged a hotel for her and her children on the same day they received her note, and within two days they helped her get into a new apartment — normally a huge hurdle for an employee without the money in the bank for a security deposit. He knew that over 40 percent of American workers have less than $400 in the bank; how are they supposed to come up with three months’ rent?

When Ratliff told her that the Dream On was confidential and she didn’t have to share it, her response was, “Not going to share it? I want to tell everybody! No one has ever done anything this nice for me.”

Over a four-year time period they fulfilled 250 dreams. Ratliff said, “When you start to read some of these, you realize that so many things that we take for granted, other people are desperately struggling for not just hourly employees, but salaried employees as well.”

A Dramatic Impact

Just in case you are wondering why this article is appearing on a business site, hold your horses. The profound impact of Appletree Answers’s sudden awakening to the prevalence of the financial tightrope in its ranks was not limited to the lives of its employees and their families (possibly for generations). In true stakeholder business fashion, they discovered that this is, in fact, a better way of doing business.

The effect on the business was dramatic. In a little under four years, their voluntary turnover went from 118 percent to 18 percent. … Ratliff emphasizes, “Most of this is so simple.Yet the power of this goes way beyond what most of us comprehend. It is a fundamental responsibility of the entrepreneur in a business to create a place that adds value to a person’s life and well-being as opposed to a place that detracts value.”

If you’re anything like me, this story inspires you to see what’s possible within your own company. And so I invite you to join me for the final part of this series slated for next week's newsletter, where we’ll explore what every company can do to prevent homelessness before it starts, and the impact that would have on homelessness in cities across the country.


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