It’s a major milestone for the nonprofit, which nine years ago was on the brink of being homeless itself. Today, it’s become a local favorite for corporate giving and private philanthropy.

Share story

JJ McKay walked through the front doors of what used to be a recovery center in Burien and spread his arms.

“Welcome to our new home,” said McKay, chairman of the board of Mary’s Place, King County’s largest emergency shelter provider for families.

The new place isn’t glamorous. It’s been vacant for over a year, at least one door won’t open, and it will need some cleaning up before 200 mothers, fathers and kids can move in this summer.

About this project

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, and Starbucks. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

But for Mary’s Place’s leadership, buying its first shelter this month was a major milestone in the life of Mary’s Place. Nine years ago, Mary’s Place was just a small nonprofit on the brink of becoming homeless itself, existing in donated space in a church building that was up for sale.

In the last five years, Mary’s Place has raised its local profile remarkably. Its budget has risen from less than a million to $11 million, largely due to corporate giving and private philanthropy. Amazon and Starbucks have matched donations to Mary’s Place, which now operates 680 beds in 10 locations.

Until the purchase of this building, Mary’s Place has operated emergency family shelters by converting buildings awaiting development into shelter. They currently operate shelters in buildings on loan from Amazon and other private owners, King County and the city of Seattle, which also awarded Mary’s Place a $1.2 million contract to operate a family shelter in North Seattle.

Then, a year and a half ago, Mark and Lisa Caputo, a Mercer Island family who founded Liberty Dialysis, approached Mary’s Place about finding a permanent home. They gave Mary’s Place a gift of $1 million and an interest-free loan of a little over $4 million to buy the place.

A lot of the nonprofit’s growth, donors say, is because of executive director Marty Hartman. She’s been at Mary’s Place for almost 20 years, and executive director for almost 10. This year, she was named one of Seattle’s 50 most influential women by Seattle Met magazine.

She has a knack for convincing donors that their money will be well-spent. Last year, Mary’s Place moved 268 families into permanent or transitional housing, and moved 126 unsheltered families into housing from tents and cars through diversion programs.

“Marty is the driver,” Mark Caputo said. “We’ve worked with a lot of charities and nonprofit organizations, not just in Seattle, and … (at Mary’s Place) there’s this tremendous urgency to get people inside. And Marty sets the tone.”

Given the need, shelter for families is a relatively easy sell to donors. In the snapshot count of homelessness in 2017, an estimated 905 families were homeless in King County; 135 of those were families headed by a young parent under 25 years of age.

Ninety-seven percent of the families had shelter, but there could be many more unsheltered families than were caught in the estimate.

“There’s no question about it — no child sleeps outside,” said Fawn Spady, a member of the family that founded Dick’s Drive-In and a regular partner with Mary’s Place. “In the hierarchy of needs, families with children are at the top. Let’s at least solve that.”

A previous version of this article misstated the nature of Mary’s Place’s diversion program. Mary’s Place’s diversion program works with unsheltered families.