The Industry

“We’d Spend Hours Each Week Unpacking and Throwing the Food Away”

Amazon has been a generous neighbor to a Seattle homeless shelter. Why is its generosity such a pain?

A room provided by Amazon to Mary's Place, superimposed with Amazon logo like arrows going in every direction.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images

In 2017, a network of homeless shelters in Seattle called Mary’s Place received a package from Amazon—delivered in person, on camera, by an Amazon official. The cardboard box contained an oversize skeleton key as well as a note from the e-commerce giant, promising that a new Amazon building in downtown Seattle would also house a new shelter to be run by the nonprofit. The surprise was, by any measure, a generous gift: When finished in 2020, the new 200-bed facility is supposed to be one of the largest homeless shelters in Seattle.

This wasn’t the first charitable gift Amazon has given Mary’s Place. In 2016, the company provided the nonprofit with one of its unused properties in downtown Seattle, a former Travelodge, to create a temporary homeless shelter. After that building closed for construction, the shelter moved to another unused Amazon building in the same area, a former Days Inn, where it’s currently based. A few months after that, in late 2016, the company also started offering Mary’s Place free food for residents. It had just opened its new checkout-free Amazon Go store down the street from the shelter—at first as a service for its own employees, though it opened to the public earlier this year. Like most grocery operations, at the end of the day the store had leftover, pre-made food that was still good to eat but wouldn’t be sold the following day.

Free space, free food: Amazon’s beneficence has been a great boon to Mary’s Place—an example of generosity and civic spirit that the company can point to as its relationship to its home city comes under more strain and scrutiny, and as Seattle struggles with a rapidly growing homeless population. But for Mary’s Place employees, it’s also, at times, been a colossal headache.

The donated food from Amazon has been difficult to transport, store, dispose of, and sometimes even vouch for. The shelters have sometimes been tough to manage thanks to problems with the donated buildings. And the relationship to Amazon, though perhaps the envy of any nonprofit in need of a generous benefactor, has sometimes been a stressor precisely because it tells such a heartwarming story—one that Amazon officials have been very eager to share. These are the complaints from one current and four former Mary’s Place employees interviewed for this story. (All requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing either their current employment or future job prospects.) None of them introduced me to another, or knew whom else from Mary’s Place I had spoken with. They described a dynamic in which a nonprofit that benefits tremendously from its connection with its wealthy neighbor tolerated major logistical nuisances to the detriment of its staff and clients. And they described a relationship that seemed to prioritize optics over a thoughtful approach to philanthropic giving—resulting, in other words, in the kind of pains that an entity as wealthy as Amazon could easily afford to fix.

The context of Amazon’s broader relationship to Seattle is important. Earlier this month, in response to a local tax proposal that it didn’t like, the company halted plans to build a new tower downtown and threatened to renege on moving into a 17-story building under construction. The proposal, a version of which passed last week, taxes Seattle businesses that earn more than $20 million a year to fund shelters and affordable housing for the city’s large and growing homeless population. (Neither building involved in Amazon’s threat was the one that will include the Mary’s Place shelter.) The measure that ultimately passed was weaker than the original proposal, and though Amazon continues to oppose the tax, the company said it would resume construction on its tower. The tax will certainly meet a need: Seattle declared the rise in homelessness in the city a state of emergency more than two years ago, with the medical examiner’s office counting 169 homeless deaths in 2017, an increase of 33 deaths from the year before and more than double the number of homeless deaths from 2012. The city is the 18th largest in the United States but has the third highest homeless population, behind New York and Los Angeles. And Amazon owns more office space in Seattle than the next 40 biggest employers combined, according to the Seattle Times—a footprint that has almost certainly driven up real estate prices, which has likely contributed to homelessness in the city.

While noble, giving one shelter free rent and food is small change compared to what the city would collect from Amazon under the new tax law, which in total would raise about $47 million a year for the city to pay for affordable housing and homelessness services. (For perspective, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos makes about $52 million a day.) For now, it appears that Amazon will play ball with the city. What the alleged issues at Mary’s Place suggest, however, is that even when Amazon has happily brought its wealth to bear in addressing Seattle’s housing woes—woes it has certainly exacerbated with its presence—it hasn’t succeeded without causing turbulence in the process.

The company’s growth and success have deepened the city’s coffers and helped to beef up its workforce of young, highly skilled professionals. But meanwhile, since setting up shop in Seattle in 1994, Amazon has been “a virtual no-show for hometown philanthropy,” as the Seattle Times put it in 2012. And compared to other executives who have started foundations, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, not to mention Google’s extensive portfolio of philanthropic work, the culture of philanthropy at Amazon appears paltry by comparison.

Since announcing the partnership with Mary’s Place to provide a new shelter location, Amazon has trumpeted the arrangement as a showcase of its efforts to give back to its hometown. The homeless-shelter network, in turn, has been vocal in its praise of the online retail giant—especially when the new permanent shelter was announced last May. But the view from the ground floor at Mary’s Place hasn’t been as rosy, particularly when it comes to logistics—even though logistics, as the employees I spoke to pointed out, is Amazon’s thing.

The sandwich handoff was supposed to be simple. At first, according to three former Mary’s Place employees, Amazon would deliver crates of pre-made food to the shelter; once the shelter moved to the Days Inn location in 2017, it was close enough to the Amazon Go store that Mary’s Place employees went to pick up the food themselves. But former and current staff told me it was hard to predict how much food the shelter would receive each day, with the haul ranging anywhere from five to 40 crates filled with packaged meals, like tuna and chicken-salad sandwiches, the bulk of which needed refrigeration. At around 9:30 p.m. on Monday through Friday, Amazon Go would have the food ready for pickup. Not only did staff not know how much to expect, they often didn’t have enough refrigerator space back at Mary’s Place to store it all—which meant the small, already time-strapped shelter staff on evening or overnight shifts had to throw away the food or else find another home for it, since it was too late to serve it at that evening’s meal.

“It would be this panicked scramble,” one of the former Mary’s Place employees said. “It was always more than we could fit in the refrigerators that we had, which were mostly full of the food that we as a shelter bought to feed people.”

Staff also weren’t told how long it had been since the food was last refrigerated. “We often don’t know how long the food has been sitting out,” the current Mary’s Place employee said. “We care about the people who the food is meant to serve, and even if [the food] does get to guests, it’s not in the best condition.”

In addition to the downtown location, Mary’s Place operates six other shelters in Seattle, serving individuals and families with 680 beds each night. But Amazon didn’t deliver the food to the other Mary’s Place locations, nor did the shelter consistently set aside additional resources to distribute the donations each night, according to four sources. Often that meant Mary’s Place employees had to drive some food to other locations themselves—that is, when they didn’t simply toss it because of refrigeration space or concerns over its freshness. And since Seattle has strict composting rules, the foodstuffs had to be separated from the packaging first. “The last thing we wanted to do was throw out food,” one former Mary’s Place employee told me. “Still, we’d spend hours each week unpacking and throwing the food away.”

Because Mary’s Place could only occasionally set aside staff time to deliver the food, employees had to improvise. “I lived near a tent city, so when my shift was over, if I had time, I’d call the encampment city to see if they would take stuff,” one former employee said.

The sun begins to set on the homeless encampment known as Nickelsville on November 3, 2015, in Seattle, Washington.
The sun begins to set on the homeless encampment known as Nickelsville on Nov. 3, 2015, in Seattle.
George Rose/Getty Images

Three of the employees—two former, one current—told me they felt their complaints about the flawed donation process went unheeded. Finally, sometime late last year, Mary’s Place did hire a food services director—a new position—though it is unclear if the process has improved. As of earlier this year, a current employee told me, “All of these problems with the food are still ongoing.”

It’s not uncommon, of course, for homeless shelters to get food that’s past its expiration date, or has been sitting out for unknown periods of time, and for resource-strapped shelter staff to be left to judge and sort the trash from the edible food. Sifting through potentially expired food is a frustrating time suck all the same—an issue that might have been resolved through closer coordination or better feedback.

There were also problems with the doors at both donated spaces, according to three Mary’s Place sources. In these instances, residents would be locked out of their rooms and separated from their belongings, sometimes overnight and for extended periods of time. “I had one family who was locked out of their room for days with no access to their stuff,” a former employee at Mary’s Place said. Though Mary’s Place staff was unsure if they were responsible for fixing the doors or if Amazon was, it was a routine problem and Amazon owned the building. “We’re talking about people who have gone through trauma related to their belongings,” a former shelter staffer told me. Two former Mary’s Place employees noted this happened to multiple families.

Former Mary’s Place employees also described how Amazon officials would ask for tours of the shelter with very little notice; when this happened, Mary’s Place management ordered staff to hurry and make the shelter spotless in preparation for the walkthrough. “These are highly secured shelters with some people escaping domestic violence,” one former employee said, describing the stress that the last-minute visits would cause staff and guests. “It felt very observatory; it didn’t feel right,” said the former employee.

“I always felt like we were a little bit like a zoo,” another former employee said. “The people from Amazon who came for a tour never talked to any of the guests.” The current employee said that it has been a constant problem for shelter staff, who are often only notified a day before the tours happen, noting that the problems with the tours have been raised enough that Mary’s Place leadership addressed the issue with shelter staff at a meeting at the beginning of the year.

I asked Amazon about these short-notice walk-throughs, and a spokeswoman said that Amazon employees don’t normally visit the shelter unannounced. Amazon and Mary’s Place deny that the food has often been left out for unknown periods of time, noting that the transportation from Amazon Go’s fridges to Mary’s Place happens quickly, usually taking about 15 minutes. Mary’s Place also says that it’s the job of the shelter staff to distribute donated food from Amazon to other shelters and dispose of food that’s not consumed. But former and current staff told me that they’d spend hours a week separating out the food from the trash with the donations from Amazon that weren’t served to guests, either because there was no room to store it or because it was left out for unknown periods of time. Mary’s Place said there had been some complications with the locks at both locations and that it had resolved the problem at the current one. It acknowledged that there had been occasions where families were unable to access their rooms overnight and said that those people were given alternative places to stay. “Best memory says that only happened one or two times,” at the Travelodge location and that the doors had been fixed within 30 days after the shelter moved in to the new location in the old Days Inn, a Mary’s Place spokeswoman said in an email.

Other partnerships between grocery stories and nonprofits that work to serve Seattle’s growing homeless population have been less strained. One nonprofit, FareStart, which has also received some donated space from Amazon’s large real estate holdings, runs a program that serves meals to local homeless shelters, and told me that its staff work with catering operations to get leftover food from events and conferences and that they always take the temperature of the food when it’s going in and out of the truck during pickups so they know how long food has been out of refrigeration. FareStart’s focus, however, is on serving food to the homeless. Mary’s Place is focused on providing shelter, and the current and former Mary’s Place staff I spoke to for this story felt Amazon didn’t do enough through its tremendous resources or logistics expertise to make the process go smoothly.

Any pitfalls that come with working with corporate partners to receive surplus food and donations may, on balance, be worth it for resource-strapped shelters. But Amazon is the fifth-most-valuable company in the world, with one of the richest men on the planet at its helm, leaving little doubt that the company could be doing much more to ensure that its local philanthropy isn’t making life tougher for people on the front lines.

In an interview with Business Insider last month, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said that he thinks the most practical way to spend his enormous wealth is pumping $1 billion a year into space travel. To critics concerned with more earthly matters, that skyward focus might look like neglect. “Amazon is the biggest player in the housing market crisis,” said Rachel Fyall, a professor of public policy with a specialization in housing at the University of Washington. Helping with homeless shelters is certainly a useful and needed contribution to the city’s housing crisis, but according to Fyall, it’s not enough, since homeless shelters are designed to meet emergency needs and aren’t a long-term solution for more affordable housing. “While it is welcome, [and] we need all the tools we can get, I think it would be helpful if we had the major employers in the city, including Amazon, involved in the planning process in the city,” Fyall said. That might include supporting different kinds of housing initiatives for people who are at risk of being displaced or policies that would help those currently in Seattle from being forced to leave or enter homelessness while zoning and construction catch up.

“A lot of people don’t make the connection between the rapid rise in housing cost and the rise of the homeless population, and if our tech leaders could help make that connection, it would help change people’s opinion about housing policy,” said Fyall. But that would likely require Amazon admitting it was absent from these important discussions for too long; now that there’s a problem to solve, a level of self-reflection might not be in the company’s best interest. Washington state, after all, has no income tax, and despite raking in $51 billion in revenue last quarter, Amazon managed to pay no federal taxes in 2017. Now, with local lawmakers eyeing companies like Amazon more closely, making a connection between the company’s growth, the strain on the city’s housing market, and Seattle’s booming homeless population probably isn’t the arrow the company is prepared to draw. Until then, well-paid tech employees moving to Seattle will continue to require housing, prices will continue to rise, and more families and individuals who aren’t a part of the city’s white-collar workforce are likely to end up on the street. A few of the relatively lucky ones may even find a bed at Mary’s Place.