EVERETT — Sarah Al-Khalil disappeared for six years.
Born and raised in Everett, the mother of three was a Montessori teacher. She dabbled in cosmetology on the side, earning a license to make some extra cash.
Then she re-aggravated an old injury — an ACL tear from her days playing high school basketball. Doctors prescribed her oxycodone. At first, the medicine helped. After a few months, however, her prescription turned into an addiction.
Percocet progressed to heroin.
“That’s when it really started to spiral,” Al-Khalil said. “I didn’t let my family know. I just thought they were better off without me and without my issues.”
Today, Al-Khalil is the customer support coordinator at Pallet, an Everett-based temporary housing manufacturer. More than 80% of Pallet’s employees have “experienced homelessness, substance abuse or the justice system,” according to the company.
CEO Amy King and her husband started Pallet to help end homelessness. They built their first shelter in Tacoma in 2017. By 2019, Pallet had built five shelter villages.
But as people searched for ways to stay quarantined in the pandemic over the next two years, the company boomed and expanded across the country: Seattle, Dallas, Boston and so on. Pallet built the shelters for its 100th site this month — in Tulalip, about a half-hour drive from the company warehouse. Its largest village is in Los Angeles and is home to 200 shelters.
Locally, there is a Pallet site behind the Everett Gospel Mission, complete with raised flowerbeds outside each door and vinyl images from the Pacific Northwest wrapping the outer walls. There were 20 shelters at first, but a year after installation, the city used American Rescue Plan Act funding to double that. Now there is space for 54 people.
King emphasized that as Pallet grows, they’re able to employ more local people like Al-Khalil. The company “purposefully employs” people who have the same lived experience as those they aim to serve. This, King said, allows Pallet to tailor its product as employees share insights.
“People say, ‘Oh, homelessness will never end in our lifetime.’ I think that’s garbage,” King said. “I think we can. We should. We have the resources to. We just need to put the right people — decision-makers — at the center and push forward with intentionality to get it done, and we can.”
The company philosophy is that no one should go unsheltered when a shelter can be built in a day.
Pallet’s shelters can be assembled in less than an hour. They are made of insulated prefabricated panels and last up to 10 years. Local governments or nonprofits hire Pallet to build the shelters, and then those entities manage the sites.
The shelters offer a quick solution to get people off the streets and sheltered.
By 2020, Al-Khalil had spent six years homeless. She recalled being soaked to the bone, wearing clothing found in nearby rubbish bins.
“The winters and the rain were definitely the hardest, of course,” Al-Khalil said. “I’ve had to escape from fires from inside the tent because we’d fall asleep, and the candle would get too hot.”
One rainy day in Portland, a woman saw Al-Khalil sitting at a bus stop and offered to buy her a hot meal. Afterward, the woman took Al-Khalil to Fred Meyer and got her a tent and a sleeping bag. Upon parting ways, the woman offered Al-Khalil $60.
“I knew at that point that she came into my life for a reason,” Al-Khalil said. “So I took that opportunity to be like, ‘Here’s my mom’s phone number. Can you just tell her and my kids that I’m OK? I don’t want her to pick me up. I don’t want to talk to her, but just let her know I’m OK.’”
Al-Khalil’s mother went to Portland and scoured the homeless encampments, asking people about her daughter’s whereabouts, a mugshot in hand. Her mother found her living in what Al-Khalil described as “a luxury trap house.” At first, she refused to go home. But weeks later, on the day after Christmas, Al-Khalil called home.
She entered drug rehabilitation in January 2021 in Yakima. From there, she moved into a recovery house and began an internship at Kindred Kitchen, a cafe in Everett that offers job training to “formerly homeless and low-income individuals who need a fresh start.”
“I applied at Amazon warehouses, looking for jobs. … But I was getting rejected, rejected, rejected since I had thefts on my background and whatnot,” Al-Khalil said.
Then she found Pallet.
She couldn’t believe Pallet encouraged people who have struggled with substance abuse or been homeless to apply. Pallet hired Al-Khalil as a manufacturing specialist, working on the production floor, but she has since been promoted to her current position.
“What I really do like about them is that they hold people accountable,” Al-Khalil said. “They have a zero tolerance for using.”
Al-Khalil said the company understands “we are addicts and relapse is a part of a lot of people’s journey,” but they don’t want to risk the sobriety of others. After completing some requirements, people can reapply after 30 days for a second chance.
King said Pallet offers stability through purposeful employment.
Although the entities that purchase Pallet shelters manage the sites themselves, Pallet announced new “Dignity Standards” this month. The detailed standards require purchasers that operate Pallet sites to provide access to hygiene facilities, daily meals, local transportation, support services and safety features.
“Our products are a tool in the toolkit to making people’s lives better, and we have to start talking about homelessness as a people-centric thing — not something that we can solve with just housing or a silver bullet solution, like Pallet,” King said.
Some villages are only for women with children, survivors of domestic abuse or people with some other common attribute. On average, people stay in the sites for three to six months — or whenever they’re ready to move into more permanent housing.
“All of our sites are set up in a community setting with multiple shelters because we very firmly believe that rehabilitation happens in community and in connection with other people,” King said. “We need to draw people out of isolation to engage with services, engage with community so that they can reintegrate back into society successfully.”
“It’s going to take all of us and this integrated approach to help people change their lives for the better,” she added. “The more people that we move from homelessness to successful reintegration where they’re thriving — that’s better for everybody.”
Kayla J. Dunn: 425-339-3449; email@example.com; Twitter: @KaylaJ_Dunn.
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