Pike Place Markets food bank staff.
Pike Place Market's food bank staff. Pike Place Foundation

Last month Councilmember Debora Juarez said that she avoids Pike Place Market because of "safety issues," which is certainly news to the thousands of people who wander happily through the stalls day in and day out. And it was particularly surprising to the people for whom Pike Place is more than just a cattywampus shopping mall — it's a lifeline, a village, and a home.

Take a walk through downtown and you'll see that something is indeed wrong. According to counts in the last few years, at least around 12,000 of us are without stable housing, ten percent live below the poverty line, and about eight percent of us have no health insurance in the county — a percentage that quickly increased during the pandemic. Poverty, housing, hunger, access to education and medical care — whatever Seattle's doing to address these problems isn't working.

But one downtown neighborhood has not only found a few solutions, it's managed to expand them during the pandemic. For forty years, Pike Place Market has taken on the problems that the rest of Seattle struggles with — and they may have a few lessons for other neighborhoods.

To most visitors, Pike Place Market might look like a chaotic tourist destination — but there’s an entirely different Pike Place tucked behind the bustling flower stalls, flying fish, and towers of vintage books. For thousands of Seattle residents who rely on the Market for food, shelter, medical needs, and child care, it’s not so much a mall as it is a village.

According to the Pike Place Market Foundation's most recent count, last year they facilitated over 45,000 emergency meals at their senior center, 24,000 health care visits at Neighborcare Health, round-the-clock assisted living for 67 Heritage House residents, and financial assistance to 198 Market vendors struggling to stay afloat during closures. This is the community that Councilmember Debora Juarez accused of having "safety issues." It's a retirement home, Debora.

The community center at the Market.
The community center at the Market. Pike Place Foundation

You might never notice the social services offered at the Market if you’re only there to pick up some organic honey or pose with a fish-tosser. But thousands come to the Market for its housing, its preschool, its clinic, its food bank, and more. With nine full-time staff and an annual budget of around $3 million, the Pike Place Market Foundation is the primary (though not exclusive) funder for those services, and while they've been around for 40 years, they've never faced a crisis like the one that emerged in March of 2020.

“Kind of ironically, we had Friday the 13th bingo going on while we were trying to figure out what to do,” says Crystal Dixon, the foundation’s programs manager. While residents played bingo in one room, staff huddled in another to figure out what they were going to do about the state's just-announced stay-at-home order.

Knowing that they serve hundreds of particularly vulnerable people, many with special dietary needs, disabilities, or unpredictable housing, Dixon says, “the very first thing was a comprehensive food plan to make sure people got food delivered in a way they could eat it. A lot of our residents aren’t capable of cooking, or don’t have access to a kitchen.”

It wasn’t easy, particularly because their clients tend to be “pretty analog,” she says. “They want to have face-to-face conversations… We had to build an entire system to reach people where they are.”

By the middle of April, the foundation says they surveyed every Market resident and walkup to the food bank to understand their needs. Then they began connecting clients to Market services, whether that was grocery assistance, medical check-ins, or take-away meals.

The Market uses a model established by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which recognizes six factors that contribute to the health not just of individuals, but of entire neighborhoods: There’s individual health care, but also access to food, economic stability, high-quality education, safe and secure housing, and mental and social support.

With a focus on those areas, Market programs serve a combined 15,000 to 18,000 people per year, according to the foundation. (They deliberately avoid enrolling or closely monitoring clients to keep barriers as low as possible.) Because those services have been around for so long, and are so physically close, the trust required for new collaborations was already in place.

“What really makes us unique is that we’ve got a neighborhood model,” says Patricia Gray, the foundation’s community relations manager. Their focus: “How do we work together and pool our resources to serve the community? That’s what’s been proven over and over during the pandemic, is that you need a system like this to respond to a crisis.”

She adds, “We all know the crisis was here before the pandemic. … If you look around downtown, Pike Place Market as a neighborhood is doing extremely well because this infrastructure was in place before the pandemic, and then it got supercharged to hold the community tight and stable.”

Dixon echoes that sentiment. “Baked into the [Market’s] historic designation is the idea that we’ll care for the low income people who are here and provide services and support.”

No-cost and low-cost services for vulnerable neighbors should be available every neighborhood, Dixon says. “We’re fortunate to not only have the funds and fundraising to do this, but the partnerships to make this happen.”

It’s a scenario similar to an arrangement that impressed Councilmember Tammy Morales in Seattle’s sister city of Nantes when she visited in 2021. There, social services have been gathered together in a space known as 5Bridges.

“It’s the whole idea of integrating all of the things that somebody who is experiencing an emergency needs in order to get themselves back on their feet,” Morales said last month, describing 5Bridges’ Solidarity Village.

But we don’t need to look to Europe for a neighborhood where social services address emergency needs. It’s been happening here for decades, right under the noses of the tourist-swarms shopping for lavender soap. And in a time of crisis, it’s even managed to expand.

“The pandemic allowed us access to certain populations in the Market that would not have access otherwise,” says Crystal. “The more we can support people, the more people come to our programs.”