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Washington company that makes shelters for unhoused people thrives in the pandemic

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Vancouver's "Safe Stay Community" officially opened Dec. 23. Tenants said they were excited to leave their tents and hopeful for more stability in the city-sanctioned site. Troy Brynelson / OPB

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Ty Charnicky gripped a broom and smiled as he swept the floor. Though it wasn’t dirty, he swept it often.

“When I was in the car, I did this to the car, too. I cleaned it out at least once a week. I did my laundry once a week,” Charnicky said. “You know, I’m still living!”

He had slept in a car most of last year. But then he moved to an 8-by-8-foot cabin purchased by the city of Vancouver, Washington. And by early March, Charnicky had just finished his second week living there.  He said it was a major improvement.

“It’s a homeostasis improvement,” he said. “It’s about where am I going to be warm tonight? Where am I going to be safe tonight? Where am I going to sleep tonight and no one is going to tell me ‘Move your car?’ he said.

Charnicky’s cabin – one of 20 that line a cul de sac behind a strip mall – are made by an Everett, Washington, company called Pallet. Lately, the compact dwellings are becoming a common sight in some cities looking to build new forms of shelter for their homeless populations.

Pallet has grown during the pandemic. According to CEO Amy King, sales jumped from $250,000 in 2019 to $10 million in 2020. Today, the company said shelters are in more than 80 communities, up from just three in 2019.

“I think a lot of cities were kind of forced to embrace innovative models,” King said.

Idea from workers

King founded Pallet in 2016 with her husband. The couple ran a homebuilding company in Seattle for two decades. Employees, King said, sometimes shared personal stories about experiencing homelessness.

“We were hiring individuals that were exiting the criminal justice system and we started to just really get to know them, learn their stories, hear their struggles of re-entry,” King said. “We started to really explore that space and how we could be more helpful.”

King compared her shelters to emergency shelters typically erected in an earthquake-stricken town. She said there are similarities between homelessness and what people experience after a natural disaster.

Sales of shelters didn’t take off right away, however. King said some cities and counties needed convincing the dwellings would provide something traditional shelters lacked.

Then the pandemic started. Those municipalities scrambled to figure out how to provide shelters without placing people in close quarters.

“A lot of cities that we had been talking to for an extended period of time… they immediately needed us,” King said.

On the outside, the cabins have a hard and glossy outer shell, like an RV’s. They are white, framed out of aluminum and insulated with fiberglass.

For residents, there are other important features: the inside is dry and there is at least one bed. A shelter is wired with electricity and it’s outfitted with heating and air conditioning.

The large pieces of the shelter are built at Pallet’s facilities in Everett. Once built, the pieces are shipped to a community to be assembled on location.

Those locations are all around the United States now. Pallet said it has built in Dallas, Boston, the Bay Area and the island of Maui.

Effectiveness

The city of Tacoma now owns 58 shelters. It started using the shelters in 2017, and now nearly 600 individuals have used the cabins in total. Officials in the city said about a quarter of the people who start in the Pallet shelters graduate into housing.

“That’s pretty high compared to other, conventional, congregate shelters,” said Matt Jorgensen, who oversees Tacoma’s shelter programs.

Initially, Jorgensen said, Tacoma expected to contract with Pallet for three years. The city’s now on year five.

“As our city leadership saw the success of folks getting stabilized and moved into housing, they saw it as more of an asset to maintain, (to) keep that in the community as a resource for folks to get connected and into housing,” he said.

More recently, the city of Vancouver has spent close to half a million dollars on the shelters.

To Charnicky, the Vancouver man staying in a Pallet-made shelter, the dwellings themselves aren’t the story. He said the shelters would not be worth much without on-site specialists who assist with everything from finding food and showers to offering support for substance abuse.

Ty Charnicky stands in the Pallet Shelter he moved into two weeks prior. Charnicky lauded the shelter, yet stressed the importance of having on-site supportive services. Credit: Troy Brynelson / OPB

“Would I say (the cities and counties) are spending their money wisely?” Charnicky said. “If there are supportive services … then yes. If they’re just buying them to put people in them, it will not work.”

“People in the situation that we’re in – all of us, 20 different situations and circumstances – they need support and need help,” Charnicky added.

In Vancouver, which opened its community in December, three individuals have moved into permanent housing.

Pallet CEO King said the company mandates that its customers provide on-site services. She called it the company’s “dignity standard.” She said contracts are written to allow Pallet to take back its shelters if it doesn’t agree with how a customer is utilizing them.

“This is not supposed to be perpetuating people’s cycles of trauma and poverty,” King said. “It’s supposed to be lifting them out of that space and helping them progress towards permanent housing.”

Experts on homelessness say cities can’t rely on shelters alone. Gregg Colburn, a University of Washington professor and a housing policy analyst, said even well-run shelters can’t fully help a person if there’s no housing to move into.

“We have to remember, from a bigger picture, without permanent housing we still have a big homelessness problem,” Colburn said.

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