In 2017, tech businesses and leaders have stepped up as never before to help people who are homeless in the greater Seattle area.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s foundation, Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos, as well as a campaign supported by Starbucks, Microsoft and others have contributed millions of dollars in donations and building space for homeless shelters, affordable housing and other services to help those eager for a permanent home.
The support is significant, but the need is huge and expanding.
On Tuesday, a national report revealed that, for the eighth month in a row, Seattle ranked as the fastest growing city for home prices. Soaring rents and housing prices are key factors in the region’s homelessness crisis. Seattle’s one-night count of homelessness — a snapshot of those living on the streets — found 3,857 unsheltered people this year, with an additional 4,619 individuals in shelters or transitional housing.
The Northwest’s thriving tech sector is fueling the region’s robust economy — but also driving those surging home prices as more people flock to jobs in the area. Seattle alone is spending close to $50 million a year helping people experiencing homelessness. It’s spurred many to call on the tech industry to play a role in resolving the crisis.
“There has been some strong collaboration and interest from Amazon and from Paul Allen and his team in understanding the issue and what is needed to address the issue,” said Mark Putnam, director of All Home, a nonprofit that helps coordinate homeless programs and funding for King County.
When it comes to public and private strategies for tackling the homeless crisis, “these investments are really lined-up,” Putnam said. “That’s exciting.”
But others caution that while support for shelters and services help, they’re not a lasting solution.
“People are excited about doing something about homelessness, but not willing to make the housing-market changes,” said Rachel Fyall, a University of Washington assistant professor in the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance. That includes building higher density housing and smaller homes that cost less.
“Without improving the affordability of housing more generally, it’s going to be hard to have an impact,” Fyall said.
Last June, Allen announced a $1 million donation to help turn a southeast Seattle parking lot into 13 housing units for homeless individuals and couples. And in April, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation pledged $30 million to establish a combination of permanent housing and on-site services for homeless families, with an additional $5 million in support from the city.
Earlier this year, Nick Hanauer, an early investor in Amazon and a venture capitalist, helped Seattle Mayor Ed Murray launch a campaign that aimed to provide additional affordable housing. The measure called for an increase in Seattle property taxes to collect $55 million a year over five years. But the idea — which was slated to go to voters in August — was scuttled less than two months after it started. It is supposed to be replaced with a countywide proposal in 2018.
Amazon, meanwhile, has focused its housing support on shelter beds. In 2016, the retail and cloud services giant converted a former motel slated for demolition into a temporary shelter for Mary’s Place, a nonprofit serving homeless families. Bezos also offered to match up to $1 million in contributions to Mary’s Place during the city’s annual Give Big donation day.
Amazon announced in May that it’s building a permanent shelter for families among the buildings of its corporate campus. The 47,000 square-foot shelter, also to be run by Mary’s Place, is expected to open in early 2020 and house more than 200 people nightly.
Mary’s Place additionally ran a month-long No Child Sleeps Outside campaign ending in January. It raised $4.5 million in donations from Starbucks, Microsoft, Alaska Airlines, Dick’s Drive-In, Nordstrom and dozens others supported the initiative to add more shelter beds.
Amazon’s efforts to integrate their business operations and employees with their outreach to homeless people and families is appreciated by many working on the issue.
“That is kind of unheard of and really interesting,” Putnam said.
Next month, the nonprofit FareStart expects to open five eateries inside Amazon buildings in Seattle. Through its restaurants, FareStart provides training and work placement in the food industry, targeting homeless and impoverished people who have struggled to find employment. Amazon is donating more than 25,000 square feet of retail space as well as equipment to help FareStart create a new apprenticeship program. The eateries will be open to the public.
Nonprofits supporting people dealing with homelessness emphasize the importance of building empathy and not marginalizing those facing housing challenges. Collocating homeless services and Amazon offices can raise broader awareness of the problem.
“Homelessness is a condition that they’re in, not a condition that they have. They want to live integrated into the community,” Putnam said. “You’ve got to see it in order to address it, and talk to people in order to know what they want and what is going to help.”
Other tech support for the homelessness crisis:
- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Raikes Foundation, created by former Microsoft employees Jeff and Tricia Raikes, are regular supporters of homelessness programs.
- Seattle real estate company Zillow launched the Community Pillar program, which makes it easier for people with less-than-stellar housing applications to find landlords and property managers more inclined to rent to them.
- WeCount and GiveSafe are tech-led efforts working to connect people interested in providing supplies or financial help with individuals who are homeless.
- Facing Homelessness uses Facebook and Instagram to tell the stories of people who are struggling with homelessness.