By Erica C. Barnett
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 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, 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: They 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 noncongregate 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 spokesman 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.”
“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.”—Pallet spokesman Brandon Bills
On a recent sunny afternoon, Catholic Community Services 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 “deintensification” 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 to 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 Ave. N., 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 that 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. Continue reading “Pallet, a For-Profit Provider of Utilitarian Shelters, Could Be a Contender for County Funding”