Lynnwood uses disaster shelters for the homeless. Could Seattle?

Manufactured in Everett, the easy-to-construct structures were made for hurricane relief, but have been serving another purpose closer to home. 

Tony Thompson, site manager and resident at Shepherd's Village in Lynnwood, walks past one of the six Pallet homes at Good Shepherd Baptist Church, April 12, 2019. (All photos by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut) 

When Tony Thompson was living in a tent on the lawn outside Good Shepherd Baptist Church in Lynnwood, he made sure to spend as little time in it as he could.

“You only slept in the tent,” he said. “But you spent a lot of time in the community room where there was a heater, microwave, coffee pot. Everybody was in there.”

That was the first iteration of Shepherd’s Village homeless encampment. It opened in fall 2017 and was little more than a fenced-in area with tents pitched on the grass, a porta potty and the community room. Later the village added a large hoop tent over the whole village to provide a little more protection from the elements. But Jason Dunbar said the Northwest’s famously wet weather was still a constant problem for the tents. Dunbar is a social worker with the Jean Kim Foundation for Homeless Education, the nonprofit that manages Shepherd’s Village.

Tony Thompson
Tony Thompson, site manager and resident of Shepherd's Village, organizes new signage that will be placed outside the six unit tiny house village on Good Shepherd Baptist Church property in Lynnwood, April 12, 2019.

He works with residents at the village and said those early days were not very successful. Over time 22 people came and went. The average stay was less than a week, but there wasn’t a lot of success moving people from the camp to permanent housing.

In October 2018, Shepherd’s Village got a complete makeover. Workers laid down gravel and erected six white tiny homes from an Everett-based prefabricated shelter company called Pallet. Each shelter is 8 feet by 8 feet and built with aluminum frames and plastic walls, roofs and doors. The door locks and the rear panel can be kicked out in case of a fire or other emergency. Each unit has a bed, shelves, desk and window. The shelters are hooked up to electricity and are equipped with heat, air conditioning and Wi-Fi. Each unit cost about $5,000, paid for by the Jean Kim Foundation.

The village is home to five residents. There’s two men, two women, and Thompson, who has worked as the Village’s on-site manager since it launched in 2017. A sixth resident is moving in soon. The rules are pretty strict. Residents must be enrolled in school or a vocational training program — Edmonds Community College is just a 10-minute walk away. Drugs and alcohol are prohibited. As are visitors and pets. Each resident works with Dunbar, the social worker, to create an individualized plan to help them successfully transition into permanent housing. One resident has made that transition so far.

“We have started small,” said Dunbar. “We want to inspire others to do something like us.”

It appears they’ve inspired Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. Last week, Mosqueda invited the proprietors of Pallet to demonstrate their product outside city hall. Workers erected a 64-square-foot model with two folding bunks, tables, shelves, door and windows in about 20 minutes without using tools.

“I think this is an incredible solution,” she said at the event. “You saw how fast it was stood up. … This offers you the ability to get out of the rain, the ability to have a door that locks, electricity inside.”

Pallet launched three years ago with a vision that its products would be used as temporary shelters in the wake of natural disasters. Instead, the city of Tacoma became the company’s first customer after declaring a state of emergency over homelessness. The city incorporated 40 Pallet shelters into its sanctioned tent city, which also has 60 camping tents all enclosed in a massive climate-controlled tent. Tacoma’s operation includes onsite bathrooms, showers and caseworkers to help connect residents to services and affordable housing opportunities. Last fall, Mosqueda asked for, but did not receive, $3 million in the city budget to pay for a Tacoma-style tent encampment within a tent. 

Last week’s demo was a prelude for a coming push from Mosqueda to purchase shelters from Pallet to use in Seattle. The council member said she hopes to convince her colleagues to support replicating Tacoma’s use of Pallet shelters with at least 40 units, hygiene services and onsite support staff. She envisions putting them on city-owned surplus land and stressed they would be a temporary option to get people off the street and en route to permanent housing options. There are an estimated 12,112 people without permanent homes in King County. More than 6,300 of them are sleeping on the street or in tents and unofficial encampments.

“I really want to underscore this is a temporary solution,” Mosqueda said. “I think it is most important we keep our eye on the prize in terms of creating affordable housing. In the meantime, though, we have got to think of every creative solution for getting folks inside.”

Mosqueda estimates that her Pallet shelter plan would cost about $300,000, not counting the cost of staffing it. She said she will insist it comes in addition to the funding the city already provides for shelter and affordable housing, not instead of it. "This is not about taking money from an already small pot, robbing Peter to pay Paul," she said. "We need to add money to this so we can actually house folks.”

It’s likely Seattle couldn’t move forward on the Pallet shelter idea unless the project is funded in the next city budget, which will get hashed out this fall. But Mosqueda said she’s going to see if there’s any way to get it done before the next winter comes.

“People could’ve been saved from a lot of trauma if we’d had more shelter last winter.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article spelled Lynwood with one "N" in the headline and captions. Lynnwood is spelled with two Ns.

Six easy-to-construct structures created by Everett-based company Pallet, seen at Shepherd's Village in Lynnwood, April 12, 2019. 

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