The tech giant will let Mary’s Place, a nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless women and their families, run a shelter housing more than 200 people for a year in a former Travelodge that it bought as part of its downtown Seattle expansion.
Amazon.com is offering a building it owns as temporary refuge for homeless families right near the core of its soaring urban campus, marking an attempt to help address one of its hometown’s most pressing problems.
The company, in collaboration with Mary’s Place, a nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless women and their families, plans to house more than 200 people for a year in what used to be a Travelodge hotel and most recently was a dormitory for Cornish College of the Arts students.
The 34,500-square-foot building, at 2213 Eighth Ave., is part of a lot the company acquired in 2014 as part of its new corporate campus.
Construction in that lot won’t start for a year — so Mary’s Place can run the building as a shelter, rent-free, during that time (it will pay for the utilities). Families are expected to start moving in Monday.
The move is a response to the state of emergency declared by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to address skyrocketing homelessness. The measure, usually reserved for big natural disasters, underscored the gravity of a phenomenon that has coincided with an unprecedented economic boom partly hitched to Amazon’s expansion.
Amazon’s move highlights how the tech juggernaut — in the past criticized for the relative distance it maintained from local public affairs — is taking on a more active role as it literally transforms the city’s skyline. The company, after all, has been a regular at city meetings, where it seeks to advance its massive development plans. Now it is helping tackle one of the unwelcome corollaries of breakneck growth.
Some activists and others have said that rising rents — a result of thousands of newcomers moving into the city, many to work at Amazon and other tech companies — have contributed to the problem. During King County’s annual One Night Count of unsheltered people in January, more than 4,500 people were found sleeping outside, a 19 percent increase from last year.
“It’s an example of collaboration,” Murray said in an interview. “This problem cannot be solved by government by itself. It cannot be solved by nonprofits like Mary’s Place by themselves.
“The fact that Amazon has chosen to be a partner in probably the most difficult crisis the city is facing right now says a lot about their willingness to help us build community and be incredibly caring business partners.”
The project is modeled after a similar arrangement struck between Mary’s Place and the city of Seattle, which is allowing the nonprofit to use a former bank building in North Seattle as a shelter until construction starts there on a new police precinct.
John Schoettler, Amazon’s director of global real estate and facilities, said the company contacted the mayor’s office to see if its property could be similarly used. When it received confirmation it would work, the company got in touch with Mary’s Place, with which it has a long-standing relationship. It took four months to set up the project.
“We had a building that’s not being utilized and we had a crisis in our city,” Schoettler said in an interview. “It’s an opportunity for Amazon to be a good neighbor and do the right thing.”
The building is just a few blocks from two towers built by Amazon (a third is being built) that already have triggered a bevy of new restaurants and condo development.
The Amazon property will offer nightly shelter to between 60 and 70 families, including multigenerational families and, in some cases, pets, said Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place.
Each family will have its own room with a bathroom, and there will be a kids’ playroom, a couple of common rooms, and a kitchen. Families will be able to stay in the center from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. on weekdays, although their things can remain in their room while they’re gone. On weekends, the center will be open 24 hours so “kids can stay in their jammies,” Hartman said.
“This will become their home for now,” she said.
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Other local businesses have chipped in. The Fairmont Olympic Hotel has donated 47 rooms’ worth of furniture, including bedding and chairs, according to Amazon spokesman Sam Kennedy.
Schoettler, the Amazon executive, said that once construction starts in the lot, the company hopes it can offer another site for a shelter (it owns another former motel nearby that it hasn’t taken possession of yet.)
“It’s hard to have a crystal ball,” Schoettler said, adding, “It’s my goal that if everything works out well, they’ll just move across the street.”
Hartman, the Mary’s Place director, said the nonprofit has become adept at occupying and transforming buildings quickly, and to transfer to other spaces. “It is our goal not to let any families fall through the cracks,” she said.