Seattle looks to public-private partnership to combat homelessness

SEATTLE (KTVU) -- The city of Seattle is known for such icons as flying salmon, the Space Needle, and ferries on Puget Sound. But now, something else is becoming a fixture on the landscape of the Emerald City: a growing number of homeless people.

Frank Parker Jr., a recent arrival to Seattle, was seen recently strumming cords on his guitar for spare change near Pioneer Square, a hot spot for tourists. 

"There are a lot of homeless people here I've noticed," he said. During his performances, some on-lookers put crumpled $1 bills into a cup on the ground not far from his feet, at the corner of First Avenue and Cherry Street.

"There's a lot of homeless people everywhere," he said. "It doesn't matter where you go. This world is full of homeless people. It's just one of those things, man."

The Emerald City's shine has been dulled in recent years by encampments of people unable to live anywhere but on the streets. Similar to the Bay Area, it's a problem partially fueled by the tech boom.

"Homelessness has been on the rise," said Rachel Fyall, an associate public policy professor at the University of Washington. "The mayor has declared a state of emergency and over the past few years the homeless rates have just been increasing in a disturbing fashion." 

Seattle -- much like the San Francisco Bay Area -- is almost a victim of its own success. Seattle's high-tech boom has brought an influx of new firms looking for a cheaper place to set up shop than the Bay Area.

That's led to rapid economic growth with well paid workers as a dividend. But it's also brought one unintended consequence: an increase in the number of homeless people. City statistics show 2015 was worse than 2014 and 2016 is seeing a 19 percent increase over last year.

One possible remedy in Seattle: seeking help from some of the companies partially blamed for contributing to the influx of homeless.

Marty Hartman is executive director of Mary's Place, a non-profit which works to get the homeless off city streets. 

"Our families were outside," she said. "They were under bridges. They were in doorways. And they were sleeping in their cars."

Hartman said that changed when Amazon partnered with the city to create a stop-gap solution. The online retailer donated the use of one of its brick-and-mortar buildings in downtown Seattle. The former Travelodge Hotel on 8th Avenue is expected to be demolished in a year to accommodate Amazon's massive office expansion.

Before the demolition, however, it's serving as home to a 63-room shelter run being run by Mary's Place. Homeless people and their pets can stay during the evenings and weekends instead of sleeping on the street.

Barry Jackson, suffering health problems, moved in after the death of his spouse.

He's been living in one of the rooms with his 6-year-old daughter, Mariah, who loves to pretend she's a chef, and his 17-month old son Joey, who's just learning to walk.

"This is a true God-send," he said of the shelter as he struggled to hold back tears. "I'm just grateful to be able to come daily and to have a clean safe place for my little family and myself."

Hartman says 200 people use the shelter. And in addition to the playroom, there's a laundry facility, a kitchen for breakfast and dinner meals during the week, and a "Wish List" room, where Amazon shoppers can donate supplies. Many of the guests perform light housekeeping chores to earn points that can be redeemed at the Wish List room.

Shethy Smith does light vacuuming in the corridors on the first floor. She says her family went from living in an apartment to living on the streets after the family of four was severely sickened by the flu. She said her husband's battle was the worst and lasted the longest, nearly costing him his life.

"By the time he got out of the emergency room, the job was gone," she said. "So no money, no job, no housing."

That forced the family to try living in their car and when that failed the four ended up at Marty's Place.

"This is keeping your family together," Hartman said. "It's keeping them safe. It's keeping them warm. It's keeping them alive and it's bringing hope."

The shelter is living on borrowed time.

In a few months, the planned demolition of the building will force the shelter to move to new quarters in the area. It's not a permanent solution but experts believe this type of corporate-public partnership, combined with the construction of more affordable housing can reduce the number of homeless people.

"It's helpful as long as there are people who  . . . think that is their best option," said professor Fyall.

Barry Jackson works in marketing and sales and he hopes to have a new job, and home in the next two months. Shethy Smith and her husband have come up with an energy drink, and plan to leave Mary's Place soon.

They all say this temporary shelter and creative use of old space saved them from becoming fixtures on the streets.

By KTVU reporter Jesse Gary.


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