Through more than two decades helping thousands of women and families break the bonds of homelessness, Mary's Place has overcome many challenges. Yet 2020—with the COVID-19 pandemic—presented a series of obstacles unlike any the organization had faced before.
"We saw so many frightened families experiencing homelessness for the first time," said Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary's Place. "Parents who never thought they would be unemployed were facing lay-offs, and many other programs were reaching capacity or closing due to the pandemic. We were able to maintain most of our operations, but we had to close four smaller shelters because we needed space for social distancing.”
Though closing four shelters meant losing 300 beds, Mary's Place remained committed to providing a safe, dignified "home-for-now" for families in Seattle. A key resource that helped the organization continue to meet the increasing need was the newly established Mary's Place Family Center in The Regrade, a shelter built in one of Amazon's Seattle campus buildings. Amazon and Mary’s Place opened the center's doors at the onset of the pandemic in March of last year.
"We couldn't have imagined what we would need for a pandemic, but what we built at The Regrade was exactly it," said Hartman. "We were able to stand in so many gaps because we had this new building that offered a healthy place where families could stay together and move forward, safe from what was going on outside."
With space for an additional 200 guests each night and new features to support their health, online learning, and distancing needs, the Mary’s Place Family Center provided emergency shelter and re-housing services for more than 85 families in 2020. The building continues to support Mary's Place as they help hundreds of families each night across their network of shelters during the ongoing pandemic.
Room to breathe
An important quality the new building offers is space. "There are so many things that come into play when you're thinking about communal living in the midst of a pandemic," said Tina Browne, senior site director at the Mary's Place Family Center in The Regrade. "With this new building, we knew we had the space and the right design to shelter families safely."
The additional space meant that families had their own private rooms to return to each night. "We try to be very thoughtful about what it means to our guests to have privacy and feel safe," said Browne. "We want them to know that as long as they are with us, they won't need to worry about if they're going to have to move or who's going to be around them.”
This privacy meant Tanya, a mother who stayed at the center for eight months, could bring her child into a safe and stable environment. "It was home," she said. "Being a pregnant, single mother, it was important to know that I wasn't going to be around any danger. I had a place to lay my head and be warm. Mary's Place gave me that comfort and peace."
Common areas throughout the center also provide space for families to spend time together outside of their rooms, and a rooftop deck allows children to play outside while safely distancing from others.
"You have these little neighborhoods built out on each of the floors where families can get out of their rooms and still socially distance while eating dinner or playing games together," said Browne. "This is something we'd dreamed of having for our guests, and it's now a reality in the new Regrade building. It's been such a gift to see families feel comfortable in their own living spaces and have some sense of normalcy."
A healthy "home-for-now"
While all Mary's Place guests have a designated bed and the most private space possible, the private rooms at the Mary's Place Family Center in The Regrade were particularly important for guests of the Popsicle Place program—formed in 2018, that’s a Mary’s Place program that supports families with children who are battling serious health issues. Mary's Place welcomed 26 children to the Popsicle Place program in the new building last year.
"Imagine you have a five year old who's waiting for a heart surgery, and you have lost your home and your job because you've sacrificed everything to be present with them," said Hartman. "You might be hesitant to go to a shelter where other families live amid a pandemic because you need to protect your child and make sure they're not going to get sick before their surgery. Many families in this situation were choosing to sleep in their cars."
In an effort to help these families feel safe enough to come inside, Hartman said her team shows parents photos of the new shelter. They explain how the family would have their own room to socially distance and set up necessary medical equipment while their child worked to get healthy.
"This building allows our families to have access to home health care needs. We are able to bring medical support devices on site because of the size of the rooms and the technology that's afforded to us here," said Hartman. "It has been an incredible, life-saving gift for sick children and our medically fragile adults as well."
Included in the center's design is a health clinic where on-staff nurses and volunteer medical professionals consult with families. Tanya said the clinic helped her with prenatal care when she was expecting the arrival of her daughter. "I really needed to develop a relationship with the nurse there because I was pregnant," she said, noting that access to the onsite health clinic helped her establish this important relationship. Mary's Place also helped Tanya access the medication necessary to keep her and her baby healthy. "If I needed a prescription filled and I didn't have the money for it, there was a gift card there to help," she said.
The opportunity to move forward
Once Mary's Place has secured a safe shelter and health care for their guests, they help them work toward their goals to regain employment and permanent housing.
"I always tell guests that this is a comma, not a period in their story," said Browne. "There is life after this, and we'll do our very best to provide the resources we have to help them get back on their feet."
With a new computer lab, high-speed internet, Wi-Fi hotspots, and personal laptops donated by Amazon, guests at the Mary's Place Family Center in The Regrade have been able to access critical resources to get back on their feet. The shelter's tech has connected guests with volunteers to help them review their resumes, do mock interviews, and get legal help from nearly 50 Amazon attorneys and legal professionals. It's also helped kids connect to virtual schooling as education moved to an online setting.
"We have incredible technology at our new building that allows our families to access the services they need," said Hartman. "We had about 200 children in school at Mary's Place locations on any given day this year. Amazon provided whatever we needed to help these children and their families be successful as we navigated the challenges of the pandemic."
The work continues
A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic impacts on communities and individuals continue, while many temporary programs helping families stay afloat are coming to an end.
"We know the end of eviction moratoriums, stipends, and supplemented unemployment benefits are looming, and thousands of families are coming into homelessness," said Hartman. "Even so, our belief that no one's child should sleep outside is still doable. There is a path forward, there is a solution for this, and it will take all of us to help our neighbors."
In addition to providing more than $100 million in cash and in-kind donations to support Mary's Place and the opening of the shelter, volunteer groups from Amazon offered their time and expertise to help guests build a brighter future for their families. The Amazon Justice League volunteered nearly 700 hours of legal aid in 2020, supporting guests with housing-related issues and helping them get their stimulus checks. Beginning April 1, Amazon will match up to $1 million in donations for the Mary's Place "dream BIG" virtual luncheon that takes place on May 5. Learn more about the online giving event here. If you're interested in finding more ways to get involved, visit the Mary's Place website or shop the organization's Amazon Charity List to donate items directly.