PORTLAND — Sondra Brown spent four difficult years on the streets, and her struggles for a good night’s sleep did not end even last spring as she moved into a city-sanctioned organized camp in the heart of Portland’s Old Town. There were rats that bit holes in her tent, and in recent weeks, a bone-chilling cold would wake her up a half dozen times a night.

Then, two days before Thanksgiving, the camp got a big upgrade — 40 aluminum-framed, insulated huts equipped with bunk beds and heaters that could be run from the electric grid.

“That first night, it’s almost indescribable,” Brown recalls. “I slept harder than I had in years. Cozy and warm. I slept all the way until 8 o’clock in the morning. I woke up … my fingers weren’t numb. It was amazing.”

This dwelling was built by Pallet Shelters, an Everett-based company that has developed a prefab tiny house built with rot-resistant plastic composite walls and floors, which can be erected in 30 minutes or less.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

The company markets the shelters as a solution that treats homelessness like a disaster, and in a year when the pandemic has given new importance to the ability to isolate away from groups, sales of these shelters are on the rise.

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Last winter, in Sonoma County, California, 60 of these shelters were set up for a homeless community that had been camping along a bike trail. In Minnesota, a new homeless community is scheduled to open later this month with 100 Pallet shelters inside a converted warehouse. And in Portland, the city has spent $690,000 — at an average cost of $6,900 per unit — for 100 Pallet shelters that are being installed at three organized tent camps. Even King County has, this week, installed 28 Pallet shelters in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle.

“I think that COVID has thrown us into relevance quicker than we expected,” said Amy King, the chief executive of Pallet. “Cities are thinking more creatively and being more innovative around how they respond to homelessness.”

A growth industry

Tiny house villages appear to be a growth industry in Seattle, and Pallet officials are hopeful that — in the future — their structures could be one part of the mix of shelter offerings.

Amy King and her husband Brady, who live in Seattle, spent two decades building and remodeling homes in the Northwest before launching Pallet in 2016. Most of their 50 employees have faced  homelessness, addiction or incarceration. They now make an average wage of $18.47 an hour to manufacture the shelters, and use their life experiences to inform the design process.

Pallet has developed two basic structures – one that is 64-square feet, and a second that is 100-square feet. Both can be outfitted with single or bunk beds, and the Everett plant can currently produce about 40 a week.

There has been a learning curve.

Some shelters they sold to Tacoma in 2017 leaked. The company repaired them, and have since sold more to the city. King said the company also tweaked its insulation materials to make the shelters warmer and quieter.

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Brandon Bills, Pallet’s marketing and communication director, said Pallet expects to have 600 units sold and installed in 11 states by year’s end.

“We need political courage”

In April of 2019, Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda hosted a high-profile demonstration of the shelters on the steps of city hall: Employees assembled a shelter pod in 20 minutes and Mosqueda toured them while TV crews filmed.

Yet, Pallet has still not sold any structures to the city of Seattle, and a big reason is cost.

Currently, there are nine tiny house villages in the city, and they are composed of wood-frame shelters built with volunteer labor for about $2,500 each.

“The Pallet shelters, with all the options we would like, are probably three times as expensive, so typically we have not had that in our budget to spend,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute, which operates eight of the Seattle tiny house villages.

Many cities that have bought Pallet shelters have needed solutions fast. Pallet currently can manufacture up to 40 shelters a week and, were there a bigger market, could scale up to building 2,000 in two to three months, according to the company.

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Seattle has never required so many shelter pods in such a short time. In her first year in office, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan pledged to break ground on 1,000 tiny homes; three years later, the city has a little over 300 in total.

So, at the city’s current pace of construction, Low-Income Housing Institute staff said building the wooden homes isn’t the biggest hurdle to establishing the tiny home villages. Rather, obtaining building permits, completing site preparation and installing hygiene facilities all take more time and effort. And funding is the main hold-up, Lee said.

For 2021, the Seattle City Council has approved funding for three more tiny house villages, which would bring the total number of homes up to about 430.

Mosqueda didn’t say that the Pallet shelters she toured were a silver bullet, but that they could be considered as part of the mix of tiny homes funded. She said the bigger problem is that Durkan has not pushed hard enough to get the camps built.

“I think that some of the obstacles that come up are movable, and we need the political courage to move them,” Mosqueda said.

A spokesperson for Durkan, Kamaria Hightower, wrote in an email that the mayor proposed in her 2021 budget to move hundreds of people into hotels, apartments and long-term indoor shelter.

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“While siting these programs remains the most significant challenge, regardless of shelter type, Mayor Durkan looks forward to working with the Council to engage the community and implement these plans over the next year,” Hightower said.

A warm night’s sleep

In late November, a Pallet crew came to Portland to install the shelters at the Old Town camp. This week, they returned to put them in the two other camps east of the Willamette River.

The Portland installations now underway represents the biggest project to date in the Pacific Northwest.

In the spring, Portland’s homeless services agency opened three fenced-off encampments in areas already well-used by campers. They started with about 30 tents each and portable hygiene facilities. By fall, wind storms had damaged some tents and, with cold weather approaching, there was an urgent need to upgrade accommodations, according to Denis Theriault, communications coordinator for the Joint Office of Homeless Services, a county-city organization that provided funding for the camps.

The Joint Office said that the company’s ability to move rapidly at the scale required got them the job.

At the Old Town camp this week, the sloped white roofs and upper walls of the rectangular shelters now poke up from behind a chain link fence — fringed by barbwire.

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There, resident Brown has been able to remain sober after years of a heroin addiction that contributed to her homelessness. At the camp, she staffs a store that distributes donated items and helps with other tasks that need to be done.

She is grateful for the heated shelter that helps her sleep more easily while others still face the chill nights without heat. She hopes to move into an apartment in the new year, opening up space for someone now on the streets.

“These homes here — hopefully they will help people for years to come,” Brown said.

This story has been updated to clarify that King County purchased Pallet shelters for deployment this week in Seattle.