Pallet Founder and CEO Amy King talks building shelter for people experiencing homelessness and more in podcast interview
July 2, 2021
Amy King is known for her work with Pallet, a social purpose company working to end unsheltered homelessness and give people a second chance at employment. But it isn’t the only company she’s involved in.
Amy King is known for her work with Pallet, a social purpose company working to end unsheltered homelessness and give people a second chance at employment. But it isn’t the only company she’s involved in. There’s also Square Peg Development, a general contractor, and Weld, a nonprofit equipping system-impacted people with housing, employment, and other resources. The three companies are similar in mission and vision, with Amy and her husband Brady as the driving force.
Recently Together Washington Executive Director Tim Gaydos interviewed Amy for the “Common Good” podcast. Together Washington is a nonprofit organization encouraging innovation and prosperity for all. In the hour-long interview, Amy discussed building transitional shelter villages, Pallet’s employment model, how Weld supports the community, and more.
Listen to the full interview here. The following is a condensed version of their conversation.
Tim Gaydos: We are telling the inspiring stories of those building the common good across our region, across our state. We're at a time where it can be difficult to be able to find that common ground, to find the places and spaces that we can build together. And so often it's hard I think in today's society, folks think that we can't hold on to convictions or values and still work with people who are different. Amy King is with us today. Thanks for taking some time to be with us, but give us that quick cursory view of what these three orgs are doing right now.
Amy King: My husband and I started a Square Peg construction in 2014 and Square Peg is a general contractor that builds permanent products, both market rate and affordable around the city of Seattle and the Puget Sound area. What's unique about Square Peg is that 83 percent of our employees are individuals that are exiting the criminal justice system, addiction recovery programs and homelessness across the city. And these are individuals that are interested in the construction trades. So our goal there is to build and develop a workforce to help us construct the amount of housing that we so desperately need of permanent housing, but also to increase housing supply so that's Square Peg’s goals.
Along the way in 2016, we started a company called Pallet, which is a manufacturing company. We design and produce rapid deployment shelters that go up in 30 to 60 minutes that are used for homelessness response, disaster response and mobile workforce housing. Those also provide job opportunities for people that are traditionally marginalized but in the manufacturing industry and same thing, more than 80 percent of the employees in that entity come from those three backgrounds.
And then along the way, we felt like, as we worked with our employees to learn more about the reentry process and reintegration following homelessness and addiction, we realized that people need a lot more than just jobs, although that is a really key piece of their success in reintegration. And they needed things like housing and wraparound resources and connection to public services and community groups. And so we started a nonprofit called Weld Seattle. Weld Seattle houses about 150 people a year using vacant developer properties across the city. And then we also have an employment program in that entity. And we're really excited to announce that next year we're opening Seattle's first ever Collaborative Reentry Resource Center through that entity as well. So lots of fun stuff going on. We're really excited about it.
Tim: Wow. I mean, amazing work. Congratulations. So great. And I mean, I've got 30 follow up questions from all that.
Amy: Great! (laughs)
Tim: First, on Pallet. Some folks might — they're hearing a lot about tiny homes or tiny houses. Because so many folks here in the region, over the last few years it's been in the news every day. Homelessness and what's happening. And they're hearing a lot about tiny, tiny houses. Is that what you're doing?
Amy: Yeah, kind of. When you think of the tiny homes, people have different views of what a tiny home is. So what we provide are emergency shelters that are individual in nature. These are singular or double occupancy units. They're a little different from the tiny homes that you see around the Seattle area today in that they're made of a nontraditional construction material. So they're cleanable, sterilizable, they’re panelized. They go together fast. They can be moved really easily and taken apart if needed. They're really meant to be more of a functional, urgent response. We see homelessness as a crisis that should be treated like an emergency. So we created something that was scalable and rapid-use and easy to use and reusable so that we could start acting like homelessness is the emergency that it is and we could get people into housing as quickly as possible. All of our sites across the country are set up in a community setting. Units are set up around hygiene facilities, food services and all of our sites — it is a requirement for us — all of our sites have full-time, around-the-clock service provision, case management and rehabilitative efforts for the residents who live there.
Tim: Wow. So you're doing this, I know in Los Angeles. Are you doing some of this in Seattle? Or I know there's been maybe some movement to do some work here in Seattle around the tiny houses.
Amy: Yeah, there's been a lot of talk in the Seattle area around this movement and expanding tiny home villages. We to date have set up one unit in the Seattle area, excuse me, one site. And that was in connection with King County and Dow’s team [King County Executive Dow Constantine]. It's down on Elliott Avenue. Last year, we set up just over 2,000 shelter beds across the country, everywhere but our own backyard, which is, you know, a bummer but we get it. It's all right. So we do have sites — our longest running site, actually is in Tacoma close by. And it's a fantastic site with an 89 percent success rate, placing people in permanent housing. So we're really proud of that site.
Tim: Tell us about the work down in L.A., because you're down in L.A. quite a bunch.
Amy: Yes. So we've been working with elected officials in L.A. at the city there for just over a year. As you're probably aware, there are 66,000 homeless people in L.A. and 48,000 of those are unsheltered. So really just a massive problem. And so they are working with a number of groups to do a broad based approach and response effort to get as many people inside as quickly as possible. As you might be aware, there's also a federal Supreme Court case going on there where the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights sued the city and the county for their lack of response over the last 10 plus years. And so their urgency is being somewhat fueled and motivated by that. But actually, the city has actually really stepped up and has been great to work with and is starting to move with urgency and think creatively and embrace innovation when they think about responding to homelessness there.
Tim: Is that going to be a long-term relationship for you guys down in L.A.?
Amy: I hope so. I think so. It kind of depends. There's a lot to it that has to be considered in terms of service provision and all of that and site selection. And so I think they'll be ongoing opportunities for us to set up additional sites and rehabilitative communities for people there. One thing that we are looking at, because there's been such a broad-based response there. They're really interested in our social impact employment model that we have here, where we're employing people that need jobs. And so we are looking at a coordinated effort with them right now to put a secondary production plant on Skid Row. They are working hard to move people off of Skid Row as quickly as possible into housing, not criminalizing for homelessness, not sweeps, but to move people into effective housing with services. And part of that is job creation. So we are hopeful that we might be a part of creating some jobs for people as they exit that system down there.
Tim: That's wonderful. That's a great just a little segue to talk a little bit about what's happening here and just get your thoughts, overall kind of assessment of how we're doing here. Where are challenge areas? What can we be doing better when it comes to folks here without homes?
Amy: That's a tough, loaded question. But I'll be honest. I think what we see across the country — as I mentioned, working with L.A. and with a number of other cities across the country — what we're seeing is this really awesome creative approach to think about new ways of responding that address the root cause issue. And then sometimes we go to cities where we see this obsession with the status quo and permanent housing is the only way. As a side note, permanent housing is needed. It's absolutely the way. But we [Square Peg] also build permanent buildings. So we understand how long it takes, how cost prohibitive it is. And we cannot allow our streets to be waiting rooms for permanent housing. And that's the approach we've taken in L.A. and everywhere. And I would say it here as well. What I see when I drive around city of Seattle is we have allowed our streets to become waiting rooms for people who need our help. They are suffering and they need a place to go. They need a place to stabilize and to engage with services.
Tim: One of the things I wanted to ask you about Amy, I really want to hone in on is, you said 83 percent of your employees have come out of the criminal justice system or have experienced homelessness, addiction. This is powerful. How did that start? Where did that come from? And how is that going?
Amy: We started this work very much by accident. It sort of happened to us more than we sought it out. But now we very intentionally seek it out. And it is kind of the core of our mission here across our companies. When we first started Square Peg in 2014, my husband had set out to hire some laborers to help him. And we posted the job on Craigslist, Indeed, all the different various places that you post and literally nobody applied. And at the time, there was just this massive shortage of construction workers. There still are, it's improved some. But, at the same time, we had a mutual friend who came and asked us to help and coordinate with another gentleman who had started his own construction company and had five employees working for him. He said, could you teach him what you know about the business side of running your own business and kind of work with them? And so we were contracting them as laborers and I was helping them build out their business aspects and kind of talking through some of that with them. And then finally, they came to us and said, you know, to be honest with you, we started this business out of necessity, but we would rather just work for you guys. And we said, well, that's great. That solves the problem for both of us. So we sort of absorbed them into what we were doing.
And then — as is my practice as a manager, which I've been managing people my whole career — I went and intentionally sat down with each one of them and said, you know, tell me your story and where do you come from and how can we help you grow and all that kind of stuff. Not knowing at the time that all of them had this pretty extensive criminal history, and so when they told me where they had come from and that they were all engaged in reentry following release from incarceration, I was like, oh, my gosh, this is crazy. I grew up in Edmonds [Washington], very sheltered. I had no experience with this stuff. And in my initial reaction was fear because I didn't know. And I thought, oh, maybe I should be scared of these guys. But at the same time, I had already gotten to know them for a period of time. They had been working alongside my husband. They were amazing employees, like very hard workers, very conscientious, just really trying to prove themselves and doing a fantastic job. And so my husband and I had to sit down and say, you know, it doesn't matter that they have a criminal history, we're doing construction. It's not like we're working with small children or we're doing something that a background check would disqualify them from. We came back to it and said, well, maybe it's worthwhile. Let’s just see how this goes.
I've managed hundreds of people in my career in this industry and in health care. And I have never had such enthusiastic, conscientious workers as the people that we hire. They are the most phenomenal employees. And the rest of the employment world is totally missing this talent pool.
They work hard. They prove themselves. They're constantly trying to learn and grow and create a better opportunity for themselves. And many of them acknowledge the fact that they haven't always made the best choices. Often those choices are driven by frustrating circumstances that are outside of their control or response to trauma situations, things that are understandable to me now that I know and understand so much more about how they ended up where they did.
Tim: Absolutely incredible. That's just something, as you said, that is overlooked. Not only did you see this hiring pool, but you also saw the fact that as you got in, you start to hear their story. And how much story matters. The fact that second and often third chances are important. Tell us about that. I know there's so many stories you could probably tell about this, but what's something that sticks out?
Amy: I have so many stories, but just as a blanket, I can very confidently say that 100 percent of our people that we work with and for, a hundred percent of them have a significant childhood trauma. One hundred percent. And that is the common denominator. They've had some trauma that's happened to them. That was not their doing. And yeah, maybe they made some bad choices in response to that trauma. But, you know, it's interesting, you use the word second chance, and that's a common terminology that we hear, third chances. What I would argue is a lot of our people never had a chance to begin with. They grew up in poverty with parents that were not engaged or couldn't engage because of their own past circumstance. They did not have access to good education, to good nutrition, to housing. They did not have access to the same opportunities that I had growing up in a privileged environment. And all of them, when they tell me their stories and I hear what they've come from, I'm like, dear God, if I had gone through what you went through, I don't think I would be upright. How are you functioning in society and carrying on? And I think that's the part that I walk away from my job every day going, it's easy for those of us with opportunity and privilege to look at and judge people who are in situations different than us and say stupid stuff like pick yourself up by your bootstraps. I hate that saying, I absolutely hate it. And knowing now those people and walking alongside them in their journey, I realize that there's no bootstraps. They're not even wearing any boots. There's a totally different scenario there that I think many of us that come from privilege, if we had to journey through what they've journeyed through in terms of that childhood trauma and neglect, we would not be alive. They have navigated poverty and addiction and abuse and neglect and things that most of us would never stand up underneath. I see the people that work with us as heroes. We see people everyday, men and women, that are reunited with their children. We see families being put back together. It's a really beautiful cycle of watching people put their lives back together and then turning around and offering what they've learned back to their communities in meaningful ways.
Tim: Amy, one of the things that you have going now is Weld. The Seattle Times did a great feature on this a few months ago. Tell our listeners about what Weld is and what's coming.
Amy: Yes, so we're really excited. Weld, it is a nonprofit organization that basically provides housing access to opportunity and resources around the city for people that are reentering following incarceration, addiction, recovery and homelessness. And so we have a couple of different program areas. For the last five years now, we have been housing people, utilizing vacant developer properties throughout the city. So that's our primary program area. We turn those houses into clean and sober living houses. They are democratically run by house managers on site with accountability, with meetings, regular meetings and all kinds of services set up inside the house to help the rehabilitative process of the individual that are living there. We housed about 100 to 150 people a year in that program and it's just been wildly successful for us.
Last year we also launched a program called Weld Works, which is a staffing agency that provides individuals exiting the system to contract labor jobs. We started out in the construction industry because that's what we know. But we're now working in cleaning and sanitation and manufacturing, hospitality, all kinds of industries. And the thought there is kind of twofold. One is we want to introduce people exiting the system to jobs and we encourage employers who hire our individuals on a contract basis to pick them off if they like them. There's no placement or headhunter fee if they decide they want to employ them. And we will continue to support the individual for up to a year after placement in employment with all of their soft skills and other needs outside of employment. And then we also want to encourage employers to sort of, as I say, dip their toe in the water of second chance employment and try out the model that we love and embody and think is really meaningful. And so this is a way for them to see what would it be like to employ someone coming from that background.
The last thing which we're excited to announce is 1426. So earlier this year, we were very graciously given a building by Rich Barton, the CEO of Zillow and his wife, Sarah. They bought us a building on Jackson Street just up from Pioneer Square. And we just received our building permits, which we are so excited about. And we're going to be renovating that building and turning it into Seattle's first Collaborative Reentry Resource Center. So we will be partnering with organizations like Recovery Cafe, the Clemency Project, Innocence Project, a whole bunch of groups that are doing awesome, criminal justice and social justice work in and around the city. And we're going to be providing mental health and social work services, adult education classes, resume building, job placement, housing placement. And then we're also very excited the basement is going to have a yoga studio and art studio and a recording studio in partnership with Pearl Jam and some great art organizations in our community. And we'll be offering trauma informed creative therapy services out of the building as well. So really exciting.
We won't be open for about nine to 12 more months, but that entire effort is entirely led and driven by people with lived experience. So Weld is completely staffed with individuals exiting the system who have experience with the system all the way from our executive director down. Everybody on staff has that lived experience and they build amazing programs that are incredibly effective. So we're really excited.
Tim: Well, you had me at Pearl Jam. So they're partnering with you all. What does that look like?
Amy: They've been great to help us funding and sponsorship of the recording studio itself. And then as you're probably aware, a number of members of Pearl Jam have been engaged with all kinds of cool community service programs like MusiCares. And so we're looking at opportunities to do music-based awareness building around social justice issues and then opportunities for troubled youth that we're trying to prevent from going into the system, that kind of stuff. So there'll be a recording studio there where we can work with youth on music and we'll have pottery wheel and art and yoga and all those things. So the idea there is, you know, people are going to come into the space and do some really hard work that's really important and significant around their trauma and around their experience. And you can kind of let that out in a creative way.
Tim: Amy, what do you do in your spare time?
Amy: (laughs) I work. I don't have a lot of spare time. This is something that obviously we're very passionate about and actually 1426 kind of is my spare time passion project. I am the founder of Weld, but I have very happily handed it off to really capable people who come from the backgrounds that we serve and they really run that. And I just step in and help them as needed. I can't take credit for the beautiful programs that they have created and run today. They do beautiful, amazing work. And I would be remiss to not talk about, they actually have a less than three percent recidivism rate in the programs that they've built. The national average for five years [after release], recidivism rate across the country is 77 percent. And Weld's recidivism rate is three. It's because it's run by people who come from that background.
Tim: How do you want to be remembered, Amy?
Amy: That's a really, really good question. I would love to be remembered as a social justice warrior. As someone who fought for the people who couldn't find their own voices, and that I want to be the person who hands any microphone that I have off to someone who doesn't usually get that chance. I want to elevate the stories and voices of the heroes that I get to walk with every day. And I want to be remembered because of them.