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Amazon to Share New Building With Homeless Shelter in Seattle

In an interview at the current Mary’s Place site owned by Amazon, which was bustling with families returning to the shelter for the evening, John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president for global real estate and facilities, said the company would spend “tens of millions of dollars” on the design and construction of the shelter’s portion of the building. Amazon will pay the utilities for Mary’s Place, which will occupy the space rent free, although the organization will continue to pay its own staff.

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John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president for global real estate and facilities, on the Amazon campus last week. He said the company would spend “tens of millions of dollars” on the design and construction of the shelter’s portion of the building. Credit Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

Mr. Schoettler said Amazon originally allowed the shelter to stay in the motel because of the severity of Seattle’s homelessness crisis, which had prompted the city’s mayor to declare a state of emergency in 2015. Mr. Schoettler said Amazon was impressed by Mary’s Place, and he described its plan to give the shelter a permanent home as an investment in the neighborhood.

In San Francisco, Google, Salesforce.com and others have funded a campaign to find permanent housing for homeless people. But Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said she was unaware of any other private corporation integrating a homeless shelter into its building.

“Too often, homelessness gets pushed to the other side of the tracks,” Ms. Roman said. “Keeping them as neighbors is nice.”

In Seattle, the plan could also help burnish Amazon’s image, which has taken some hits. It has been targeted by anti-gentrification activists, and its high-pressure work culture was the subject of a New York Times investigation two years ago.

Amazon has also been bashed for being disengaged from civic life relative to local stalwarts known for their philanthropic giving, like Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks. More recently, that has begun to change, with gifts like Amazon’s $10 million donation for the construction of a new computer science building at the University of Washington.

“Its reputation in Seattle has certainly suffered,” said Alan Durning, executive director of Sightline Institute, a nonprofit research organization focused on the Pacific Northwest. “Doing things like this may be in its enlightened self-interest, right on site for the world to see.”

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A rendering of the six-story building, right, that Amazon will share with a Mary’s Place facility expected to open in 2020. Credit Graphite

Amazon is also a different company from just a few years ago. It now has 30,000 employees in the city, making it Seattle’s largest private employer, and it has transformed large swaths of the downtown and South Lake Union neighborhoods.

While the company not long ago consistently lost money, Amazon now regularly turns a profit thanks to its lucrative cloud-computing business, giving it more financial breathing room for activities like philanthropy.

Seattle’s homelessness crisis has also worsened, with tent encampments sprouting up by the side of freeways, under bridges and in parks. The surrounding King County area had the third-largest homeless population in the country last year, after New York and Los Angeles, according to an annual report to Congress by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

More than 10,000 people are homeless in the area, with more than 4,000 of them living on the streets, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness estimated in a report last year.

One of the residents of Mary’s Place, Patricia Abbott, a mother of four, said she became homeless after losing her job when her son was injured and she needed to tend to his medical needs. She has been at the facility for six months and learned of Amazon’s support for the organization at the shelter’s Christmas party when she received an American Girl doll for one of her children from the company.

“There’s people out there who really do care,” Ms. Abbott said.

Mr. Schoettler said he proposed the plan to let the shelter remain at a meeting in January of Amazon’s senior leadership, including Jeff Bezos, the company’s chief executive. Mr. Schoettler made the invitation to Ms. Hartman of Mary’s Place last week, she said in an interview on Monday.

“It’s permanent,” Mr. Schoettler said, pausing for a moment before adding, “Until homelessness is solved.”

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