Marty Hartman peers inside a brand-new, blue-framed bathroom door on the fourth floor of what looks from the outside like another nearly completed Amazon office building.
“We have a bathtub!” she shouts.
Mary’s Place, which began 20 years ago as a day center for unsheltered women with Hartman as program manager, is about to open a state-of-the-art shelter designed for families struggling with housing. The shelter will be welcoming and quiet, with two of its eight floors dedicated to families with nowhere to live while their kids are treated for serious illnesses.
It is located in the very center of the region’s economic boom, in the embrace of a company that is both credited and blamed for the torrid growth and its side effects, which include a rise in homelessness.
A purpose-built shelter is itself rare. Mary’s Place, like many shelter providers, has housed families in whatever collection of temporary spaces Hartman and her team could scrap together: church basements, empty store fronts, public buildings, an old bank, former restaurants and hotels — most destined for eventual redevelopment. Never a space like this and, until recently, never on a long-term basis.
And never before with a simple joy of parenthood that’s easily taken for granted: the splish-splash of a toddler in a tub, or the exhale of a tired mom taking a moment in safety and comfort after cold nights trying to sleep in a car.
The shelter is unusual in another way. It appears to be the first of its kind anywhere built into a corporate office. Amazon essentially sliced off a 63,000-square-foot chunk of one of its new Seattle buildings to provide the nonprofit with a permanent space.
It is separate from the corporate offices, but nearby to facilitate volunteering, the company says. John Schoettler, Amazon’s top real estate executive, made the announcement in May 2017, presenting Hartman an Amazon cardboard box with its smile logo and a letter inside.
The corporate giant is charging no rent and is paying for utilities, maintenance and security under a 10-year operating agreement. But that doesn’t indicate “a sunset on our intentions,” Schoettler said, adding, “Maybe someday, if homelessness in Seattle is resolved, we can turn that back into space for ourselves. As far as I’m concerned, it’s theirs as long as they need it.”
When the shelter fills with up to 275 moms, dads and kids early next year, it will be a supportive, temporary home with help to find permanent housing, care for an ill child, connections to work (for those who need it; 70% are already employed) and, most important, Hartman said, a community.
“It’s a place where they are wanted,” she said. “I think that’s probably the greatest gift. They’ve been invited in. Their community wants them here, and I think it’s hope and love at its best.”
It will also be a vivid juxtaposition: a safety net with million-dollar views of glittering condominiums and Amazon’s headquarters.
Amazon, which once stood out for its lack of corporate giving, has in recent years grown close partnerships locally, notably with Mary’s Place and the jobs-training nonprofit FareStart, which had three restaurants in donated space among Amazon’s buildings. (One of those closed earlier this year.)
Schoettler said Amazon began to focus on homelessness after Seattle and King County declared a state of emergency in 2015. An employee on his team had volunteered with Mary’s Place years earlier, which is how he first learned of the organization. After hosting a Mary’s Place shelter in the former Travelodge hotel Amazon bought for its headquarters expansion, the company sought to make the shelter permanent. Schoettler said Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos approved the project in January 2017.
The shelter is among Amazon’s largest and most visible philanthropic programs, coming to fruition as homelessness, inequality, housing costs and the direction of Seattle converge in a hotly contested City Council election less than a month away.
Across Seventh Avenue from the shelter, the steel structure of the last major Amazon building planned for Seattle rises from the Block 18 site. It was one of two projects Amazon put on hold last year to protest a proposed city tax on large employers — also called the “head tax” and sometimes the “Amazon tax” — to raise funding for housing and homeless services.
Since then, the company has contributed $450,000 to a business organization that aims to unseat City Council incumbents who had backed the tax. Amazon’s top executives have also contributed tens of thousands of dollars to other political committees and candidates.
At the same time, Amazon worked on this unprecedented plan for a homeless shelter inside its walls.
Homeless advocates applaud the shelter, where Mary’s Place is creating a space for new, potentially more efficient approaches to the homelessness emergency. Moreover, it keeps the issue, and the individuals suffering from it, front and center in the minds of Amazon employees and the community.
Unhoused families feel an “incredible sense of isolation, the feeling that you’re almost invisible to the rest of the world,” said Kollin Min, senior program officer for family homelessness at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Locating a shelter in one of the region’s — if not the country’s — fastest-growing, tech-centric neighborhoods sends a message this is not “a population that should be swept under the rug and forgotten,” he said.
Min and others also note that any lasting resolution of the homelessness emergency will require more than emergency shelter. It requires a major increase in affordable housing, and effort from across society, including businesses, philanthropies, nonprofits and governments. “At this point, everything is necessary,” he said.
At any given time, families make up about 12% of households accessing homeless services in King County, according to the most recent data available. In July, for example, 1,401 households with children used such services here.
Some 1,500 emergency shelter beds were available to families with children in the county, but they were full 94% of the time in the past year.
The new Mary’s Place shelter with space for 275 represents about an 18% increase. It also will accommodate 75 more people on mats during weather emergencies.
“We do need the shelter, but ultimately housing is the solution to homelessness,” said Nan Roman, head of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, D.C. “So you also hope that these corporations are investing in housing, especially when they have an impact — which Amazon does, and other corporations do — on housing markets.”
“We see that here in D.C.,” Roman added, noting a rise in housing prices since Amazon picked northern Virginia for its second headquarters. “That’s definitely already having an impact on the housing market.”
Amazon says it has committed more than $100 million in cash and in-kind donations, including the space and its upkeep, to Mary’s Place over the next decade. In June, the company announced donations of $3 million to the Arlington (Virginia) Community Foundation and $5 million to Seattle’s Plymouth Housing, funding that will address both housing affordability and homelessness, according to the company. Amazon is also matching employee donations up to $5 million through the end of this year to 20 nonprofits working on these issues.
As the homelessness crisis has grown in major cities across the U.S., corporations and their billionaire founders have directed efforts toward permanent housing. Perhaps the most outspoken is Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, who led the charge in San Francisco for higher taxes to fund a response to the homelessness emergency there. (Salesforce recently upped its Seattle-area presence with the acquisition of Tableau Software.)
Google, in June, pledged $1 billion to build upward of 15,000 affordable housing units in Silicon Valley. It said it donated $1 million to the Salvation Army to expand shelter capacity for men as it recently opened new offices next to Amazon’s campus in Seattle.
Also locally, the late Paul Allen in 2017 pledged $30 million for a 95-unit affordable housing development on track to open next year by the Mount Baker light-rail station. Mary’s Place will be one of the service providers there.
Microsoft, meanwhile, announced a $500 million loan fund early this year to develop low- and middle-income housing units around the region. The pledge included a $25 million donation to homeless and housing service providers.
Bezos himself in 2018 began a $2 billion philanthropy with his then-wife, MacKenzie Bezos, to support nonprofits working with homeless families and create preschools in low-income communities.
Barbara Poppe, former director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness who issued a report for the city of Seattle in 2016, said tax incentives and financing programs exist to develop low-income permanent housing, but developing new shelter space is harder.
“There is no financing available to do emergency shelter,” she said. “Banks aren’t really interested in this, and there aren’t programs to do it.”
She called Mary’s Place “a national leader” in its creative reuse of buildings waiting for redevelopment — a model necessitated by this lack of financing.
Hartman said the opportunity to design a space around the needs of clients was exciting. Her organization, at Amazon’s urging, started working backward from its goal of “no child sleeps outside” to define what that would take.
Rather than devote a few floors of the new building to the shelter, Amazon’s architect on the project, Graphite Design Group, walled off a portion of each floor, creating a separate space that extends the entire height of the building and is served by dedicated elevators, stairways and entrances. The dividing wall itself was built out with small nooks and sitting areas for kids to climb in for a book or a snuggle.
Each floor has a different purpose.
Amazon employee volunteers will teach coding classes, read to children and help adults with resumes in a communal dining room on the seventh floor. Schoettler said that was part of why Amazon wanted the shelter on its campus. “They’re able to just walk to the facility and be there,” he said.
A large kitchen overlooking Westlake Avenue will be used to prepare some 600,000 meals a year, also serving 10 other Mary’s Place shelters in King County.
A lower floor is dedicated to a relatively new approach to homelessness called diversion. The idea is for families to spend at most a few weeks in this space — outfitted with alcoves for bunk beds, separated by colorful curtains — as providers try to help them quickly solve whatever problem caused them to lose housing, Hartman said. That might mean negotiating with a landlord or mediating a dispute with a family member. It’s a cost-effective approach that makes space in shelters for those with more complex barriers to housing, she said.
Upper floors are designed for longer stays, with private rooms for families, sound-insulated and set away from the large windows, which spill light onto communal spaces. That design choice addresses the major sleep deficit many unsheltered families have, whether because of cold, fear or the constant need to wake early and relocate, Hartman said. “You can’t sleep unless your kids are stable and safe,” she said.
Hartman said the typical family stays in a shelter for about 85 days before finding permanent housing. For 90% of those families, it’s their first time being unhoused. “It’s one season of a life, not to be repeated,” she said.
Two floors are for Popsicle Place, specially designed for unhoused families with kids undergoing chemotherapy, dialysis or other major medical treatments. Mary’s Place has rooms for 10 such families in its Burien shelter, the only other permanent facility it operates, purchased in May 2018. At Amazon, it will have 30 more.
“We’re trying to achieve: No sick child sleeps in a car,” Hartman said. “We can do better than that.”