Amazon to include homeless shelter in new development

Downtown Seattle project to provide rooms for 220 homeless people

A year ago, when Amazon allowed a homeless shelter for families move into a former motel it owned, it was viewed as a nice but fleeting gesture. The motel was on a chunk of downtown property in Seattle where Amazon planned to eventually erect yet another set of sparkling buildings to meet its insatiable need for office space in this city, where it has come to embody both the region's economic boom and its struggles with affordability.

The hotel would be torn down and the shelter kicked out when that time came. Instead, Amazon has decided to let the shelter stay.

In an unusual arrangement the company has agreed to give the shelter, Mary’s Place, a permanent home inside one of the new office buildings for which it will break ground in the autumn.

Amazon will give roughly half of the six-storey building to the shelter, providing it with 47,000sq ft of space, with private rooms that can hold 65 families, or about 220 people and their pets. The facility, expected to open in early 2020, will have its own entrance and elevators.


“I see it as this huge gift because everywhere we go, we end up leaving,” said Marty Hartman, the executive director of Mary’s Place, which runs seven transitional shelters around the Seattle area meant to house families until they can find permanent homes. “You come in and become a fabric of the neighbourhood you’re in, and then you say goodbye. That’s a hard thing for a lot of people to do.”

Millions of dollars

In an interview at the current Mary’s Place site owned by Amazon, which was bustling with families returning to the shelter for the evening, John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice-president for global real estate and facilities, said the company would spend “tens of millions of dollars” on the design and construction of the shelter’s portion of the building.

Amazon will pay the utilities for Mary’s Place, which will occupy the space rent free, although the organisation will continue to pay its own staff.

Schoettler said Amazon originally allowed the shelter to stay in the motel because of the severity of Seattle’s homelessness crisis, which had prompted the city’s mayor to declare a state of emergency in 2015.

Schoettler said Amazon was impressed by Mary’s Place, and he described the plan to give the shelter a permanent home as an investment in the neighbourhood.

In San Francisco, Google, Salesforce. com and others have funded a campaign to find permanent housing for homeless people. However, Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a non-profit advocacy group in Washington, DC, said she was unaware of any other private corporation integrating a homeless shelter into its building.

“Too often, homelessness gets pushed to the other side of the tracks,” Roman said. “Keeping them as neighbours is nice.”

In Seattle the plan could also help burnish Amazon’s image which has taken some hits.

It has been targeted by anti-gentrification activists, and its high-pressure work culture was the subject of a New York Times investigation two years ago. Amazon has also been criticised for being disengaged from civic life relative to local stalwarts known for their philanthropic giving like Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks.


More recently that has begun to change, with gifts like Amazon’s $10 million (€9.2m) donation for the construction of a new computer science building at the University of Washington.

“Its reputation in Seattle has certainly suffered,” said Alan Durning, executive director of Sightline Institute, a non-profit research organisation focused on the Pacific northwest. “Doing things like this may be in its enlightened self-interest, right on site for the world to see.”

Amazon is also a different company from just a few years ago. It has 30,000 employees in the city, making it Seattle’s largest private employer, and it has transformed large swathes of the downtown and South Lake Union neighbourhoods.

While the company not long ago consistently lost money, Amazon now regularly turns a profit thanks to its lucrative cloud-computing business, giving it more financial breathing room for activities like philanthropy.

Seattle’s homelessness crisis has also worsened, with tent encampments sprouting up by the side of freeways, under bridges and in parks. The surrounding King County area had the third largest homeless population in the US last year after New York and Los Angeles, according to an annual report to Congress by the US department of housing and urban development.

On the streets

More than 10,000 people are homeless in the Seattle area, with more than 4,000 of them living on the streets, the Seattle/King County coalition on homelessness estimated in a report last year.

One of the residents of Mary’s Place, Patricia Abbott, a mother of four, said she became homeless after losing her job when her son was injured and she needed to tend to his medical needs. She has been at the facility for six months, and learned of Amazon’s support for the organisation at the shelter’s Christmas party when she received an American Girl doll for one of her children from the company. “There’s people out there who really do care,” Abbott said.