- Amazon opened Washington state’s largest family shelter in March.
- The shelter occupies eight floors at the company’s Seattle headquarters. It’s large enough to allow social distancing among homeless guests.
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The timing couldn’t have been better: Just as Seattle was grappling with a severe coronavirus outbreak that posed a particular threat to its homeless population, Amazon opened the largest family shelter in Washington state.
“This new shelter, opening when it did, has been our saving grace,” Marty Hartman, executive director of the local nonprofit Mary’s Place, which operates the shelter, said in a statement. “This space ensures we don’t have to return families to homelessness during this unprecedented and trying time.”
The plan was three years in the making. In May 2017, Amazon set aside eight floors in its Seattle headquarters for a shelter operated by Mary’s Place. The shelter opened in March, around the time that a nursing-home outbreak turned Seattle into a coronavirus hotspot.
Seattle has since contained its outbreak and loosened lockdown measures, but Gov. Jay Inslee has said that social distancing must continue. The new shelter enables homeless residents abide by these rules.
Here’s what it looks like.
The shelter is located near Seattle’s central business district. That places it within the epicentre of the city’s homelessness crisis.
Seattle saw a considerable rise in rents and home prices after Amazon built its campus there in 2010. From 2007 to 2017, the median rent in Seattle increased by nearly 42%, compared to 18% nationwide.
Seattle’s homeless count has risen by 9% each year since 2014. There are currently about 12,500 homeless people in King County, where Seattle is located.
The 63,000-square-foot shelter has its own entrance across the street from the Amazon Spheres — prominent glass domes that double as an employee workspace and greenhouse.
Up to 200 people can stay at the shelter each night. The facility also has room for 75 additional people during weather emergencies.
Homeless people are among the most vulnerable populations during a public-health crisis. Those who sleep outdoors lack access to sanitation facilities, making it difficult to wash their hands or practice other forms of basic hygiene that lower their risk of infection.
In response to the pandemic, Mary’s Place relocated vulnerable families from its other shelters to the new space.
Mary’s Place first opened as a day centre for single homeless women two decades ago. The nonprofit now operates 11 shelters, including the one in Amazon’s headquarters.
The organisation is known for repurposing dilapidated buildings – including a former bank, sheriff’s office, and restaurant – and turning them into temporary homeless housing.
Mary’s Place estimates that nearly one-third of its homeless families include members who are at high risk of severe coronavirus cases.
That includes children with muscular dystrophy, babies waiting on cleft palate and ear reconstruction surgeries, and adults ages 60 and older.
Traditional homeless shelters can create breeding grounds for outbreaks, but the new shelter facilitates social distancing.
“The opening of the new Mary’s Place shelter came at a crucial moment, helping to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement.
Many shelters only have showers. But the new one offers “hygiene areas” where occupants can take baths.
Four floors are reserved for sleeping. Families have individual, private rooms.
Another two floors are reserved for families of children with life-threatening illnesses.
Those floors offer space for 30 families.
“That child outside tonight that might be on a feeding tube, that’s waiting for a kidney transplant, that just wants to graduate from high school or their mum wants to see take their first step – those are things that we can solve,” Hartman previously told Business Insider. “It will just take a minute. It’s one season of their life.”
An on-site health clinic gives residents access to medical services.
The shelter’s frontline staff has access to face protectors, ear thermometers, gloves, and safety glasses.
Amazon is also providing monthly pro-bono legal counseling.
The company donated 20 laptops to help facilitate this service virtually during the pandemic. Homeless shelter residents can receive advice on credit or debt issues, housing and tenant rights, or personal injury concerns.
Amazon has offered to pay for the space’s utilities, maintenance, and security for the next 10 years, or as long as Mary’s Place needs it. It’s also covering the rent.
Mary’s Place will be responsible for funding its own operations, programming, and staff in the space.
The organisation told CityLab that those expenses could amount to $US2 million a year.
Under normal circumstances, Amazon employees would be able to volunteer to teach coding classes, read to children, provide resume help, or do mock job interviews.
The original plan also called for Amazon employees to help chop vegetables, organise birthday celebrations, or throw dance parties, Hartman said in December.
An industrial kitchen is expected to produce 600,000 meals per year.
These meals aren’t just for occupants of the shelter on Amazon’s campus. They will also be delivered to 10 other Mary’s Place shelters in Seattle.
Adult guests are expected to perform around three hours of chores or another type of service each week.
Each hour of activity is worth 1,500 points. Guests can use those points to purchase donated items, including food and clothing, at an indoor marketplace.
Guests can also earn points by participating in activities that move them toward their housing and employment goals.
The shelter has offices and computer labs.
The space is soundproof, so guests won’t hear the activity in Amazon offices and vice versa.
Amazon is permitting its corporate employees to work remotely until at least early October, though.
Children have access to WiFi and computers so they can attend classes online.
As a service to working parents who lost access to childcare during the pandemic, Mary’s Place employees are babysitting children for extended hours.
Kids can also play along the bike tracks on the shelter’s rooftop deck.
Mary’s Place said the fresh air is a welcome respite for guests who are isolating indoors.