When COVID-19 served up a global crisis that threatened to sink his startup, Keenan O’Leary shifted his plans to help address another emergency: widespread homelessness.
In 2019, O’Leary launched a company offering a lodging alternative to low-cost hostels with communal sleeping arrangements. His idea was to create affordable, easy-to-assemble pods that would provide budget travelers with privacy and security at a lower price than a typical hotel room. Working with an industrial designer, they started developing units that could be set up inside unused spaces such as empty warehouses or other underutilized buildings that still had heat, cooling and plumbing.
Then COVID hit. Travel rapidly dried up. The startup risked failure.
“We were looking for a way to not waste the work we had put in,” O’Leary said.
As COVID unfolded, O’Leary watched his home city of Seattle struggling to shelter and serve the rapidly growing numbers of people experiencing homelessness — including a family member who had spent time unsheltered.
The challenge was overwhelming. A study led by the University of Washington counted 839 tents being used as shelter citywide in Seattle in 2019. A narrower follow-up survey found that the number of tents swelled by 53% over roughly nine months ending in the summer of 2020. Pre-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 his hostel pods could be modified to serve this population.
So he and his designer, James Lee, began reworking their product to bring down the price and increase its durability, using PVC plastic panels that are easy to clean and resistant to graffiti and bacteria. The units have an aluminum frame for strength. If a panel is damaged, a new one can be swapped in. Units have fans and sprinkler systems.
The startup, called City Pods, this week is unveiling its prototype and sharing it with elected officials, government agencies, and organizations serving people who are homeless. The plan is to fine-tune the units and hopefully land some initial orders.
The units also include Amazon Fire Tablets affixed to a panel to help residents access virtual services in the privacy of their rooms, including mental health experts or support for treating substance abuse.
The goal, said O’Leary, 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 about $12,000 for a pod measuring 64 square feet. One possible customer is a Puget Sound area community college. The school has some 150 homeless students who are struggling to secure housing. It would be cost prohibitive for the college to build its own dorms, leaving them to consider an alternative like City Pods erected in a vacant Safeway near campus.
Julie Willie, community development director for the City of Everett, checked out a demo pod on Wednesday as a potential option for her community north of Seattle.
She liked the idea of repurposing unused buildings and offering people a little space of their own to find stability and the services they need.
“We need to give that whole spectrum of services and housing opportunities,” Willie said.
The question is whether the option will pencil out. In addition to the price of the pods, buildings used to house the units might need to be retrofitted with more bathrooms, showers, laundry and communal kitchen spaces, as well as upgrades of heating and cooling systems.
Everett-based Pallet has also created a reusable, paneled housing solution. Their units are less expensive than City Pods and are suitable for use as outdoor, stand-alone units. Since launching in 2016, Pallet has provided housing for populations experiencing homelessness in cities around the country. Willie said her city has purchased Pallet units that are performing well.
The ideal, long-term answer remains finding permanent housing for people, but meeting the growing need is expensive and slow going.
One potential local solution, the Compassion Seattle initiative, won’t be on November’s ballot after a judge ruled that the measure to overhaul city policies around homelessness overstepped its reach.
“We have to try every innovative idea 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 helping homeless people find housing and property owners and managers.
The City Pods “can be a part of the solution,” Kelmendi said. “We just don’t have the housing supply to house everyone in the moment.”