What do you do if you're the single largest downtown employer in a city with a crisis-level homeless problem? Simple: You open a homeless shelter. Amazon has done just that in Seattle, after mayor Ed Murray declared the growing homeless problem in this booming town an emergency.
The new shelter, a former Travelodge, should make a serious difference to the up to 200 people expected to be living there within the next week or so. They'll be entitled to stay from 5 pm to 8 am on weekdays and 24 hours on weekends, so long as they're working to find permanent housing and employment. There are free breakfasts and dinners, and residents contribute three hours of work per week and earn credit in the facility's store. Amazon is working with the local group Mary's Place, which is operating the shelter.
The new shelter is both a great benefit for the community and a low-impact donation from Amazon which was always going to buy the building anyway. The company plans to expand its campus into the space, likely sometime in 2018. Indeed, if it had left the building empty, it might well have been inhabited by homeless squatters.
When construction starts, the families living in the shelter will have to move on. But, according to Mary's Place, most homeless families only need temporary help while they recover from an economic setback such as a lost job. Short-term lodging in the new facility might be enough to get back on their feet.
The move is obviously intended to get Amazon's reputation as a corporate citizen back on its feet as well. In years past, the company has been sharply criticized for making few or no charitable contributions to local causes. After a shareholders' meeting, company founder Jeff Bezos was asked by a local politician about Amazon's conspicuous absence from the rosters of local philanthropists. "Our core business activities are probably the most important thing we do to contribute," he replied, according to the Seattle Times.
He reportedly chose to locate the company there in the first place because Washington's relatively low population would save Amazon from having to charge sales tax to too many customers. Ironically, Amazon's rapid growth means it's bringing more and more employees to the center of town -- and helping to create the tight housing market and rising rents that led to a 19 percent increase in people sleeping outdoors over last year.
Given that Amazon unintentionally helped worsen the homelessness problem, it's great that the company is doing something to alleviate it, if only for the next 18 months or so. Who knows? Maybe someday, it will help fund a solution that's a little more long-term.