by Erica C. Barnett
(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
Over the past two years, a broad consensus emerged that non-congregate shelter — hotel rooms, tiny houses, and other kinds of physically separated spaces — was both healthier and more humane than the typical pre-pandemic congregate shelter setup, in which dozens of people sleep inches apart on cots or on the ground. When people are offered a choice between semi-congregate shelter and more private spaces, they’re far more likely to “accept” a hotel room or tiny house, and once there, they’re more likely to find housing than they would in traditional congregate shelters.
In January, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) issued a request for proposals for almost $5 million to fund new non-congregate shelter spaces. (An RFP is a preliminary step in the process of selecting and funding nonprofit service providers.) The Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), which operates a dozen tiny house villages in and around Seattle, applied, as did Seattle’s JustCARE program, which offers hotel-based shelter and case management to people with complex behavioral health challenges and criminal justice involvement.
The original schedule called for the KCRHA to award the funding last month. Instead, at the end of January, the authority did something unusual: It extended the RFP by two weeks and expanded its terms to allow for-profit companies, rather than just nonprofits, to apply. The only for-profit firm that builds non-congregate shelters locally is an Everett-based company called Pallet.
Although the KCRHA wouldn’t say whether Pallet applied 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 “proliferation” of villages around King County needs to end.
Pallet might offer an alternative. The company builds “cabins” that serve a similar function to, but look and feel very different than, LIHI’s wooden shelters. If tiny houses look like scaled-down craftsman homes, complete with sharply peaked roofs and porches, pallet shelters resemble miniature FEMA trailers — identical, white, and utilitarian. According to Pallet spokesperson Brandon Bills, that’s by design. The shelters, which are made of prefabricated aluminum and composite panels, are meant to feel temporary, because shelter is supposed to be temporary.
“All our villages have some version of forward momentum,” said Bills, who added that the typical stay at 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 in these for a long period of time, whereas something that’s more cutesy or homey might be more welcoming for a longer period of time.”
On a recent sunny afternoon, Catholic Community Services (CCS) program manager Jennifer Newman showed me around the pallet village at CCS’ Junction Point shelter, an expansion of a modular shelter complex that opened in 2020 as part of the effort to “de-intensify” mass shelters across the city in response to the pandemic.
The cabins, arranged in narrow rows on a barren lot facing busy Elliott Avenue West, are taller and more spacious than they appear from the road, with high windows for ventilation, a fold-out cot, and a few small shelves for personal belongings. Each row of cabins is anchored by a portable toilet, but residents can access restrooms, along with a kitchen, common areas, and showers, at the main shelter building a few yards away.
Newman said guests at the shelter, which began as a “de-intensification” site for CCS’ St. Martin de Porres shelter, vastly prefer the individual shelters to cubicles in the nearby modular units.
“The advantage of a Pallet shelter, versus cubicles or congregate shelter, is just the sense of safety, and the dignity of being able to shut and lock a door is a little bit more stabilizing for folks,” Newman said. This stability, in turn, allows CCS to better assess people’s needs. Newman said CCS has “been intentional about trying to move people into the Pallet shelters who are working with case managers” to get into housing, using the shelters as “practice housing, in a way.” The bright, relatively breezy units are an obvious upgrade from the nearby cubicles, which — although more private than a mat or cot at a mass shelter site — are dark, musty, and uninviting.
Pallet shelter units cost more to build than tiny houses — the price starts at about $5,300 a unit, compared with about $4,000 for a tiny house, according to figures provided by Pallet and LIHI, respectively. King County, which owns the land where the Junction Point shelter is located, has bought 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 site manager at Eagle Village, said Chief Seattle Club did have to ask for physical changes, which Pallet made “very quickly,” so people in wheelchairs or on crutches could access the units and get into and out of the built-in bed, which was originally too far off the ground. The shelters also lack air conditioning, making them “hotter inside than it was outside” during last summer’s heat wave, Belgarde said.
Still, as at Junction Point, people at Eagle Village tend to prefer living in their own space to sleeping in a trailer in close proximity to other people, Belgarde said. Two young men who have been in Pallet units at Eagle Village for close to a year “really like the option — they say that in the trailers, the rooms are too close together, they can hear people talking, so having the tiny house option with space in between” is appealing, she said.
Pallet shelters have their critics — among them LIHI director Sharon Lee, who spent much of the pandemic seeking funds from the City to build more tiny house villages. Lee says the same “homey” qualities that Bills said can turn tiny house villages into “forever homes” are what make them one of the most popular shelter options. “Most people like to have a sense of identity with where they’re living — they can decorate it and it’s attractive,” Lee said. “We’ve also heard feedback from people, especially neighbors and community residents, that they like that they’re colorful … and, of course, because they look like a tiny house.” In contrast, Lee said, Pallet shelters appear “sterile-looking” and “flimsy.”
“I understand why some cities are buying Pallet shelters, because they’re quick to put up, but I think it’s much better to have a higher quality of materials and living environment,” Lee said.
Lee also pushed back on the charge that people get too comfortable at 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 tiny house last year, according to Lee, was 114 days, similar to that at shelters run by other organizations using Pallet structures.
Newman, from CCS, noted that every homeless service provider has been hit by staffing shortages over the last year, limiting access to case management (and slowing down the housing process for sheltered people) across the board. “One of the biggest determinants for housing outcomes is not only appropriate and adequate housing resources, but adequate case managers for helping folks get into housing,” she said.
Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, whose efforts to add new tiny house villages across the city were continually thwarted by former Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration, says he sees no reason why tiny house villages and Pallet shelters can’t coexist. “I am certainly a fan of diversifying products and operators and collecting feedback and data and seeing how it works in the field,” Lewis said.
Lewis said Pallet’s business model also appealed to him. Unlike other for-profit companies, Pallet is organized as a “social-purpose corporation,” a State tax designation that allows it to base business decisions on social impact, rather than just company or shareholder profits. The company’s mission includes creating job opportunities for nontraditional workers; according to Bills, more than 80% of Pallet’s employees have lived experience of addiction, homelessness, or criminal justice involvement.
“When I was doing my It Takes a Village concept, Pallet factored into my consideration,” he continued. It Takes a Village was Lewis’ plan, never implemented, to place new tiny house villages in every City Council district. “If we had some city sites that we could use for only a year or two, Pallets would be easier to tear down and relocate.”
Bills said he considers Pallet shelters just one option among many possible shelter alternatives — one that works better for some people, but “is not the magic solution” to homelessness. “There are people living on the streets because the options that are currently available to them don’t fit their needs,” he said. “We’re trying to create one more option that we believe this population is likely to accept.”
Of course, funding for new shelter is limited, making competition for $5 million more of a zero-sum game than the “more of everything” proponents suggest. The KCRHA plans to make its final funding recommendations next Monday, March 7.
Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.
📸 Featured Image: Pallet Shelters. (Photo: Erica C. Barnett)
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!