Pallet, a for-profit provider of utility shelters, may be a candidate for county funding

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by Erica C. Barnett

(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted by arrangement.)


Over the past two years, there has been a broad consensus that non-collective shelters – hotel rooms, small houses and other types of physically separated spaces – are both healthier and more humane than typical configuration of pre-pandemic mass shelters, in which dozens of people sleep a few centimeters apart on cots or on the ground. When people have a choice between a semi-collective shelter and more private spaces, they are much more likely to “accept” a hotel room or a small house, and once there they are more likely to find housing than they would in traditional housing. collective shelters.

In January, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) issued a request for proposals nearly $5 million to fund new places in non-collective shelters. (A request for proposals is a preliminary step in the process of selecting and funding nonprofit service providers.) The Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), which operates a dozen small housing villages in and around Seattle , applied, as did Seattle’s JustCARE program, which provides hotel shelter and case management for people with complex behavioral health issues and involved in criminal justice.

The original schedule was for KCRHA to grant the funding last month. Instead, at the end of January, the authority did something unusual: it extended the tender for two weeks and widened its conditions to allow for-profit companies, rather than for-profit organizations non-profit, to apply. The only for-profit company that builds single-occupancy shelters locally is an Everett-based company called Pallet.

Although the KCRHA does not say whether Pallet asked for the money, the authority’s CEO, Marc Dones, has frequently expressed skepticism about LIHI’s tiny house village model, arguing that people stay in tiny houses. . too long and that the “proliferationof villages around King County must stop.

Palette might offer an alternative. The company builds “cabins” that perform a similar function, but look and feel very different from LIHI’s wooden sheds. If the tiny houses look like scaled-down craftsman houses, with peaked roofs and porches, the pallet sheds look like miniature FEMA trailers – identical, white and utilitarian. According to Pallet’s spokesman, Brandon Bills, it’s on purpose. The shelters, which are made of prefabricated aluminum and composite panels, are meant to be temporary, because a shelter is meant to be temporary.

“All of our villages have some version of forward momentum,” said Bills, who added that the typical stay in a Pallet shelter is between three and six months. “We want them to be warm and safe, which they are, but we don’t want to encourage people to live there for a long time when something cuter or more intimate might be more welcoming for a longer time. period of time. time.”

On a recent sunny afternoon, Catholic Community Services (CCS) program manager Jennifer Newman showed me around the pallet village at CCS’s Junction Point shelter, an extension of a modular shelter complex which opened in 2020 as part of the effort to “descale” mass sheltering across the city in response to the pandemic.

The cabins, arranged in narrow rows on barren terrain facing busy Elliott Avenue West, are taller and more spacious than they appear from the road, with high windows for ventilation, a folding bed and a few small shelves for personal effects. Each row of cabins is anchored by portable toilets, but residents can access the toilets, as well as a kitchen, common areas and showers, in the main shelter building a few meters away.

Newman said clients of the shelter, which began as a “de-escalation” site for CCS’s St. Martin de Porres shelter, largely prefer individual shelters to cabins in nearby modular units.

“The advantage of a pallet shelter, over cubicles or a communal shelter, is just the feeling of security, and the dignity of being able to close and lock a door is a bit more stabilizing for people,” said Newman said. This stability, in turn, allows CCS to better assess people’s needs. Newman said the CCS had “intended to try to move people in the Pallet shelters who work with case managers” into housing, using the shelters as “training housing, of sorts.” The bright and relatively airy units are a clear improvement over neighboring cabins, which — while more private than a carpet or cot at a mass shelter site — are dark, musty, and uninviting.

Pallet shelter units cost more to build than tiny houses — pricing starts at around $5,300 per unit, compared to around $4,000 for a tiny house, according to figures provided by Pallet and LIHI, respectively. King County, owner of the land where the Junction Point shelter is located, purchased 74 pallet units, including the 20 at Junction Point and 46 for a future site on Aurora Avenue North, plus three at a shelter in Bellevue and five at Eagle Village, a group of mostly modular shelters operated by the Chief Seattle Club in SoDo.

Lua Belgarde, the Eagle Village site manager, said the Chief Seattle Club had to request physical changes, which Pallet made “very quickly”, so that people in wheelchairs or on crutches could access the units. and enter and exit the building. in bed, which was originally too far off the ground. The shelters also lack air conditioning, which made them “hotter inside than outside” during last summer’s heat wave, Belgarde said.

Still, like Junction Point, residents of Eagle Village tend to prefer living in their own space rather than sleeping in a trailer near other people, Belgarde said. Two young men who have been in pallet units at Eagle Village for almost a year “really like the option – they say in the trailers the rooms are too close together, they can hear people talking, so having the option of a small house with the space in between” is appealing, she says.

Pallet shelters have their detractors – among them LIHI director Sharon Lee, who has spent much of the pandemic seeking funds from the city to build more small villages of houses. Lee says the same “intimate” qualities that Bills says can turn tiny villages of homes into “forever homes” are what make it one of the most popular shelter options. “Most people like to have a sense of identity with where they live — they can decorate it and it’s attractive,” Lee said. “We’ve also heard comments from people, especially neighbors and community residents, that they like that they’re colorful…and, of course, because they look like a little house. ” By contrast, Lee said, the pallet shelters look “sterile” and “fragile.”

“I understand why some cities buy Palette shelters because they’re quick to set up, but I think it’s much better to have a better quality of materials and living environment,” Lee said.

Lee also pushed back against the accusation that people feel too comfortable in Tiny House Villages and stay there long-term, noting that 56% of people who stayed in Tiny House Villages last year moved into permanent housing. The median stay in a small house last year, according to Lee, was 114 days, similar to shelters run by other organizations using Pallet structures.

Newman of CCS noted that every homeless service provider has been hit by a staff shortage over the past year, limiting access to case management (and slowing down the housing process for people hosted) in all areas. “One of the biggest determinants of housing outcomes is not just appropriate and adequate housing resources, but adequate case managers to help people find housing,” she said.

Seattle City Council member Andrew Lewis, whose efforts to add new Tiny Home Villages across the city have been continually thwarted by former mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration, says he sees no reason why small house villages and pallet shelters can’t coexist. “I’m definitely a fan of product and operator diversification and gathering feedback and data and seeing how it works in the field,” Lewis said.

Lewis said Pallet’s business model appeals to him, too. Unlike other for-profit corporations, Pallet is organized as a “social purpose corporation,” a state tax designation that allows it to base its business decisions on social impact, rather than just the profits of company or shareholders. The company’s mission includes creating employment opportunities for non-traditional workers; according to Bills, more than 80% of Pallet employees have had an experience of addiction, homelessness, or criminal justice involvement.

“When I was doing my It Takes a Village concept, Pallet took my consideration,” he continued. It Takes a Village was Lewis’ plan, never implemented, to place new villages of small houses in each city council district. “If we had urban sites that we could only use for a year or two, the pallets would be easier to dismantle and move.”

Bills said he sees Pallet shelters as one option among many possible shelter alternatives – one that works better for some people, but “isn’t the magic bullet” to homelessness. “There are people living on the streets because the options currently available to them do not match their needs,” he said. “We’re trying to create one more option that we think this population is likely to accept.”

Of course, funding for new shelters is limited, making competition for $5 million more of a zero-sum game than “more of everything” proponents suggest. The KCRHA plans to make its final funding recommendations next Monday, March 7.


Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, urban planner, and obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the daily workings of City Hall.

📸 Featured image: Pallet shelters. (Photo: Erica C. Barnett)

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