EVERETT — General contractor Amy King realized in 2016 that something was missing from the housing market — something that would be far cheaper than a mobile home or apartment, yet would offer more dignity and personal space than a traditional homeless shelter.
Her employees, many of whom were once homeless, are filling that gap, she said.
They’re making low-cost personal shelters of aluminum and insulated panels in a factory near Paine Field.
Each personal, portable “pallet” shelter is meant to be part of a larger community, where someone who is living on the margins can get the support they need to work toward a more normal life, without having to worry about finding a safe place to sleep every night, said King, who’s now CEO of Pallet, the Everett manufacturer.
“It allows people to have space, even transitionally or temporarily, while they stabilize, get on their feet, figure out what’s next and then move on,” she said.
Since its founding in 2016, the company has churned out enough shelter units to house about 1,500 people. In Washington and nearly a dozen other states, Pallet has helped established shelter communities. They’re run by local social service agencies that provide resources to people residing in the temporary dwellings, each 100 square feet or less.
The Everett City Council will soon consider establishing a similar village with $735,000 in federal grant money.
City officials have proposed a cluster of 20 or so pallet shelters, along with communal bathrooms and showers, overseen by an organization that would ensure the site stays safe and clean. Potential locations for the project have yet to be announced.
King and others at Pallet contend the model is more effective than traditional shelters in providing a pathway to permanent housing. Some agencies that oversee pallet shelter sites have have reported that up to half of the people who enter the communities eventually are placed in permanent housing.
The company is working with service providers across the country to collect more data to illustrate those successes, King said.
A site in Tacoma, which has grown to include nearly 60 of the shelters, has served more than 450 people since it opened in 2017, according to the city, which partners with Catholic Community Services to run the community. Of those people, nearly 400 of them were connected with long-term living arrangements, Tacoma spokeswoman Megan Snow said in an email.
“We think of our pallet communities as sort of a trial run of being housed — people practicing being housed and practicing that lifestyle and then going on to permanent housing,” King said. “What we’re seeing across the board is people staying in pallet communities for about three to six months and then moving on to permanent housing from there.”
There’s also evidence that a person who’s struggling with homelessness, addiction or mental health issues is more willing to accept services or treatment if pallet shelters are an option, King said.
She credits that advantage to her staff, who drew from their own experiences to help come up with the concept and design for the structures.
The vast majority of the company’s some 55 employees were once homeless, grappling with addiction issues, involved in the criminal justice system or some combination.
The team conceived Pallet’s vision with the knowledge that many people who are homeless refuse offers for shelter — not because they don’t need it, but because they fear a congregate shelter setting will deprive them of their independence or some other comfort, King said.
“The assumption is that they want to be homeless, and that’s just a false assumption,” she said. “The reality is they don’t want to accept the services that are currently provided because it doesn’t allow them to maintain the dignity of staying with their partner or keeping their pet with them or having their stuff.”
The company has marketed its product as one that can rapidly meet the needs of governments and nonprofits tasked with sheltering people.
Each unit can be assembled in less than an hour with just a few basic tools.
Pricing starts at about $4,900 per shelter but varies depending on order size and other details.
Tacoma spent $900,000 to establish its “Stability Site,” which started in 2017 as a collection of tents under a large, temperature-controlled structure and pallet shelters outside, Snow said.
In the two years that followed, the site cost roughly $250,000 a month to run and staff with case managers.
Last year, all tents were replaced with pallet shelters, and each unit was moved into the structure to help reduce utility costs. In 2021-22, the city expects operation costs will run about $3.6 million, to be paid with money from the general fund and a sales tax that supports mental health and substance abuse programs, Snow said.
About 60 people live there now, along with some of their pets, said Faatima Lawrence, director of homeless adult services for Catholic Community Services in Tacoma. Roughly 70 more people are on a wait list for a spot at the site, Lawrence said.
Each person living on the site is assigned to one of five case managers who can not only assist with housing needs but also help connect an individual with health care, employment, addiction treatment and other services.
“Because of how much intense case managing we do, we do house more people at the facility site than we do at our traditional shelters,” Lawrence said.
Many people who refuse beds at other shelters have accepted spots at the site because there’s no curfew and fewer restrictions, she said. People are generally allowed to stay there as long as they are working with their case managers to take steps to improve their lives — even if the steps are small ones.
“We are able to meet the person where they’re at, without a lot of rules compared to our other shelters,” Lawrence said. “They’re more comfortable. They want to stay.”
Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.