Seattle City Startup Pods Aims to Address Homelessness with Freestanding Mini Indoor Homes - Start Up Gazzete
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Seattle City Startup Pods Aims to Address Homelessness with Freestanding Mini Indoor Homes


When COVID-19 served a global crisis that threatened to sink his startup, Keenan O’Leary changed his plans to help address another emergency: widespread homelessness.

In 2019, O’Leary launched a company that offers a lodging alternative to low-cost shelters with communal sleeping arrangements. His idea was to create affordable, easy-to-assemble pods that would provide low-budget travelers with privacy and security at a lower price than a typical hotel room. Working with an industrial designer, he began developing units that could be installed inside unused spaces, such as empty warehouses or other underutilized buildings that still had heating, cooling, and plumbing.

Then came the COVID. The trips dried up quickly. The start runs the risk of failing.

“We were looking for a way not to waste the work we had done,” O’Leary said.

As COVID unfolded, O’Leary watched his hometown of Seattle struggling to house and serve the growing number of homeless people, including a family member who had spent time without shelter.

The challenge was overwhelming. A study led by the University of Washington counted 839 tents that were used as shelters throughout the city of Seattle in 2019. A closer monitoring survey found that the number of tents increased by 53% over approximately nine months that ended in the summer of 2020. Before the pandemic, nearly 23,000 people in Washington were experiencing homelessness during a one-night count in January 2020, according to a federal report.

O’Leary wondered if the capsules in his shelter could be modified to serve this population.

So he and his designer, James Lee, began reworking their product to lower the price and increase its durability, using PVC plastic panels that are easy to clean and resistant to graffiti and bacteria. Units have an aluminum frame for added strength. If a panel is damaged, a new one can be replaced. Units have fans and sprinkler systems.

The startup, called City Pods, unveils its prototype this week and shares it with elected officials, government agencies and organizations that serve the homeless. The plan is to fine tune the units and hopefully get some initial orders.

The units also include Amazon Fire tablets placed in a panel to help residents access virtual services in the privacy of their rooms, including experts in mental health or substance abuse support.


The goal, O’Leary said, is to try to address some of the “root causes of homelessness.”

The units will be built in Washington state, and the target price is approximately $ 12,000 for a capsule measuring 64 square feet. One potential client is a community college in the Puget Sound area. The school has about 150 homeless students who are struggling to secure housing. It would be prohibitive for the university to build its own dormitories, leaving them to consider an alternative like City Pods erected in a vacant Safeway near campus.

Julie Willie, city of Everett community development director, reviewed a demonstration capsule Wednesday as a potential option for her community north of Seattle.

She liked the idea of ​​repurposing unused buildings and giving people a little space of their own to find stability and the services they need.

“We need to provide that full spectrum of housing services and opportunities,” Willie said.

The question is whether the option will come out in pencil. In addition to the price of the capsules, the buildings used to house the units may need to be modernized with more bathrooms, showers, laundry and common kitchen spaces, as well as improvements to the heating and cooling systems.

Everett-based Pallet has also created a paneled, reusable shell solution. Their units are less expensive than City Pods and are suitable for use as freestanding outdoor units. Since its launch in 2016, Pallet has provided housing for homeless populations in cities across the country. Willie said her town has purchased Pallet units that are working well.

Finding permanent housing for people remains the ideal long-term answer, but meeting the growing need is costly and time consuming.

A possible local solution, the Compassion Seattle initiative, will not be on the November ballot after a judge ruled that the measure to review city policies on homelessness was beyond its scope.

“We have to try all the innovative ideas that we can get and invest in what works, “said Shkëlqim Kelmendi, executive director of Housing Connector. The Seattle-based nonprofit provides a bridge between organizations that help homeless people find housing and property owners and managers.

The City Pods “may be part of the solution,” Kelmendi said. “We just don’t have the supply of housing to house everyone at the moment.”

Author avatar
Joshua Smith

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