A rendering of a bedroom at "The Mary’s Place Family Shelter in The Regrade," a new shelter for homeless families that will be sharing space with Amazon corporate offices in Seattle. Courtesy of Graphite

Will the center for unsheltered families that Amazon is building in a corporate property help counter criticism that the company fuels the city’s homelessness?

In the heart of downtown Seattle, just across the street from the Amazon Spheres (three spherical conservatories that are part of Amazon’s campus), a new state-of-the-art homeless shelter is almost complete. Its name is “Mary’s Place Family Center in The Regrade”; the plans are for it to fill eight floors and open in early 2020. The center is expected to be the largest family shelter in Washington State. But the facility stands apart from other shelters for another, more surprising reason. It is being built in an Amazon corporate building and funded by the tech giant.

The shelter is nearing completion at a critical time for both Seattle and Amazon. For years, city leaders have struggled with finding large-scale solutions to the homelessness crisis, and more immediately, with offering enough emergency and transitional shelter each night for everyone who needs it.

The Seattle/King County Point-in-Time Count (made during a annual tally of the number of unsheltered Americans living on the street in various location on a single night in January) found about 6,000 people sleeping in emergency and transitional housing. But there were still around 2,800 people sleeping outside or in a tent. The new facility will certainly offer more shelter for those in need, but it will specifically help to bring some of the most vulnerable members of the homeless population—families with children—inside.

Amazon has been under fire for several years in Seattle for what many contend is its role in fueling the homelessness crisis: Critics attribute Seattle’s rising cost of living and growing inequality, in part, to Amazon’s effect on the area. The trillion-dollar company is known for paying relatively little in income taxes, and last year, when the city council passed the “head tax,” a per-employee tax on large corporations, planning to use the proceeds for additional housing and services for the homeless, Amazon teamed up with other corporations and succeeded in getting it repealed. The corporation has also contributed an unprecedented $1.45 million to this year’s Seattle City Council election in an effort to support more business-friendly candidates.

In other words, as of late, Amazon hasn’t had very good public relations in Seattle. While she commended Amazon for working with Mary’s Place to build the family center, Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness said, “[A]t the same time in no way does such a contribution offset Amazon’s obligation to contribute to this community and this region through paying taxes that create well-being and lasting benefits well beyond 200 people.”

Eisinger believes that Amazon has a deep-rooted credibility problem in the community: “Not only are they remarkably willing to throw their financial might around in influencing local politics but they’re contributing to the boom and they’re not doing what they and all other major corporations really have to be required to do, which is to contribute a portion of their profits through taxes back to the common good.”

The seeds of Amazon’s project with the nonprofit organization Mary’s Place, were sown about four years ago when Seattle’s homeless crisis reached such concerning levels that then-Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency. Mary’s Place had become adept at opening shelters in underutilized buildings slated for demolition, offering people in the community a temporary place to stay and then moving on to a new location once the owners were ready to build. When Amazon purchased an old, two-story hotel that would be vacant prior to construction, the company offered the space to the nonprofit on a temporary basis. Months later, when it bought another hotel across the street, it did the same thing.

Before long, said Mary’s Place executive director, Marty Hartman, they started developing a relationship with Amazon. But, she said, it was still a surprise when in the summer of 2017, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate and facilities, John Schoettler, let Hartman know of the company’s decision by presenting her with an Amazon shipping box containing a golden key (strategically captured on video by a Amazon team). Hartman said that Amazon offered Mary’s Place half of one of the new office buildings it would be starting construction on in the fall.

“It was a shock; I think I was just in tears,” said Hartman. “I felt an overwhelming sense of love and deep gratitude that they loved our families so much that they wanted to make sure that they could bring them all in.”

A washroom under construction at the new center for unsheltered families in an Amazon corporate building in Seattle. (Mitch Pittman/Amazon)

Mary’s Place will run the facility, which will be open 24/7 and, with over 63,000 square feet of usable space, able to house at least 275 people each night. (On extreme weather nights, there will be 75 mats available for any additional families that need a warm place to sleep.) The shelter is specifically for families, which covers a range of family constructions. As Hartman described it: “Whatever your family looks like outside, we want to make sure we can serve you inside.” Children in particular are very vulnerable outside, and when they experience trauma at a very young age, it can have life-changing effects, Hartman said. “It’s critically important for us to make sure that children’s needs are met, that they know that they have a stable place to go, that they have a bed, that they have food, that they have a bathroom.”

Four of the centers floors will be filled with individual rooms for families, with 30 rooms specifically designated for those with children who have life-threatening illnesses. There will also be a large dining space with an industrial kitchen; health and legal clinics; and a large playground. With expansive windows covering its hallways and panoramic views of the city’s corporate nerve center, it’s clear this will be far from the typical homeless shelter.

Amazon has said that in addition to providing space, it will cover utilities, maintenance, and security. “The shelter is for Mary’s Place to use (with our support) as long as they need it,” said Amazon spokeswoman Stacey Keller in an emailed statement. Altogether, the company has agreed to contribute more than $100 million to Mary’s Place over the next decade.

Eisinger said, it’s important to remember that this shelter, like all shelters, will not operate in a vacuum: “On any given night, those families need healthcare providers, those families need schools, those families need childcare systems, those families need mental health providers and employers and job trainers, and those things don’t come about because of charitable contributions. Those things come about because of government investments, and the government is funded by taxes.”

Amazon will not be covering all costs associated with the facility. Mary’s Place will still be responsible for programming, staffing, and operations costs. The organization estimated these will cost about $2 million a year.

Hartman said in addition to simply providing shelter, the facility will also offer early childhood learning, homework space for school-aged children, music and coding classes, and extensive help to get families into permanent housing. The shelter’s central location will be an added benefit, as it could make residents’ commute to work or school simpler, and the facility will act as a hub for volunteers, Hartman said. Amazon’s legal team is already slated to offer pro bono legal support at the shelter.

But the fact that it is in the middle of Amazon’s Seattle headquarters could also help to break down barriers, Eisinger believes. “It has the potential to really drive home the message that there is no they and us, that we are all in this together,” she said. “I think that’s actually potentially one of the most significant pieces of this project.”

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