Martin Johanson opens Millionair Club Charity in Seattle's Pioneer Square on March 6, 1921.

  • By Mary T. Henry
  • Posted 7/16/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10903

On March 6, 1921, Martin G. Johanson (1887-1984), a young Seattle real estate agent, and a small group of friends and supporters begin serving low-cost or free meals to homeless people in Pioneer Square from a basement at 98 Main Street. This is the beginning of the Millionair Club Charity, a non-profit charitable organization dedicated to changing lives through providing jobs and services to people in need and, most importantly, by encouraging their self-sufficiency. From its founding in 1921, the Millionair Club, which will move in 1941 to 2515 Western Avenue in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood, will serve millions of meals and find thousands of jobs for the homeless and unemployed. In 1984, columnist Emmett Watson will call it a charity "quite unlike any other places anywhere ... unique to Seattle, a distinctly Northwest entity" ("Millionair Club: ...").

Inspiration of One Man

During the economic decline after World War I, when hundreds were without work and hanging around Pioneer Square, Martin Johanson, then working as a real estate agent in the area, decided that something should be done to help them and to give dignity to their lives. On the first Sunday in March 1921, he and a group of his friends opened a space in a basement on Main Street in Pioneer Square to help these people by providing food and employment for them. Rather than "Bum's Haven," which had been suggested, he named the organization the Millionair Club Charity because he believed the people who helped others would feel like millionaires. The "e" in "millionaire" was dropped so that the club, which solicited memberships from supporters, would not be confused with a rich and elite organization. The definition of "millionair," according to Johanson, was "a person with a happy heart, happy because he can help or because he can be helped" (Brown).

Martin Johanson was born in Pontiac, Rhode Island, in 1888 and was orphaned at age 12. He worked his way across the country, serving as a lay pastor in New York, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. He had enrolled at Augustine College in Rock Island, Illinois, to become a minister, but illness forced him to drop out. Years later he stated, "I'm ministering, but not as a clergyman. It seems to me I can do more for humanity, physically, mentally and spiritually, as I am doing, than if I was in a special class" (Brown).

Johanson arrived in Seattle in 1917 and struggled to start a real estate business after working for Puget Sound Power and Light, as a street car conductor, and as a police officer. It was then that he felt an inspiration from God after witnessing the despair on the faces of the unemployed and homeless as he looked out of his office window in the Mutual Building at First and Yesler. After Johanson opened the basement space at 98 South Main as a low-cost (or free) lunch counter in March 1921, businessmen and volunteers contributed financially to continue serving the homeless and unemployed with food and jobs.

Philosophically, Johanson always believed that men out of work wanted employment, not charity, to give dignity to their lives. "A chance for the needy" became the motto for his organization. A dedicated Lutheran who grew up in a Christian home, Johanson received much support from the Lutheran community.

Success and Honor

Martin Johanson was executive director of the Millionair Club Charity for 53 years, until he retired in 1974 at 86 years of age. It was the letters he sent to contributors -- 8,000 to 10,000 at a time, multiple times a year -- that garnered much of the charity's income. And it was his dedication to its mission that accounted for the ongoing success and growth of the non-profit.

The charitable organization he founded and led for a half-century was only one of Johanson's endeavors. He was appointed by Governor Clarence Martin (1884-1955) to represent the State of Washington at the Swedish Tercentenary in Delaware in 1938. In 1939 he found time to run as a candidate for the Seattle School Board but was defeated.

Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) honored Johanson as Seattle's "First Citizen" in 1973, saying that he had "contributed more to Seattle in a publicly unrecognized way than probably anyone else in town" (Brown). In 1974 Johanson formed Better Life Associates, an organization aiding the physically disadvantaged.

Millionair Club Charity Today

Under Johanson's leadership and beyond, the Millionair Club Charity remained dedicated to changing lives through providing jobs and support services to people in need and encouraging self-sufficiency. In 1941 the organization purchased a building at 2515 Western Avenue in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood, which became a linchpin for many homeless and unemployed people. As of 2014, with less than 20 staff members and scores of volunteers, the building opens at 6:30 a.m. daily and welcomes 400 people on weekdays for hot breakfasts and lunches.

Throughout its more than 90 years, the Millionair Club Charity has been supported by private donations from individuals, foundations, and corporations. In 2013, the Millionair Club Charity was selected as beneficiary of the Celebrity Waiters Luncheon, which raised $450,000 in gross profits, enough to get 75 homeless people off the street into job training and the work force.

Jobs and Meals

The Millionair Club Charity day-labor dispatch program matches the needs of employers with club workers who possess the needed skills. The employers include businesses, contractors, and residents who need help with specific projects from general labor, yard work, housework, painting, and moving to construction and masonry. Workers can also be hired permanently either part-time or full-time.

Almost 4,000 homeowners and businesses hired more than 10,000 Millionair Club workers in 2013, and 89 of these secured permanent or long-term temporary employment. Because of these placements the club has estimated that it is saving the community millions of dollars annually by providing support services to the unemployed. Photographs of clients who have been placed in permanent jobs are proudly posted on the wall of one of the offices in the Millionair Club Charity building.

The charity's meals program serves more than 12,000 hot and nourishing meals each month. It is open to everyone with priority given at breakfast to those working in the employment program. Many local organizations and businesses regularly donate to the meals program, including Northwest Harvest, Dick's Drive-In Restaurants, Ivar's Restaurants, and Kidd Valley Restaurants. In 2013 a hydroponic farm was built in the basement of the Millionair Club Charity in partnership with Urban Harvest, an urban-farming company. Plants in the 250-square-foot demonstration garden are grown in nutrient-rich water instead of soil. The hydroponic farm was envisioned as part of a training program for participants to learn about crop production before moving on to the kitchen of the facility, in addition to producing food for the meal program and for other organizations feeding the homeless.

Expanded Services

Almost 100 people every night receive emergency shelter inside the Millionair Club Charity's secure building through partnership with Operation Nightwatch and Compass Housing Alliance. In 2013, 80 workers secured permanent or transitional housing through the club's Housing Assistance Program. A food pantry offers free food for these clients as they get settled.

Day-labor participants receive work clothes and work boots at no cost and job-search-program participants receive interview attire, choosing their own clothing from the racks of pants, shirts, jackets, and shoes.

Opened in 1998, the Donald Lofquist Shower and Laundry Center provides facilities for participants to take showers and do their laundry. There are also lockers for storage of personal items while their owners go to jobs or for interviews. In cooperation with the Lions Club and VOSH International, the Millionair Club Charity provides a free vision care clinic each week, in which local optometrists and opticians donate their time to conduct exams and fit glasses -- 132 clients have been fitted with eyeglasses and vouchers provided for 400 more. Other services include dental care, AA meetings, ESL classes, smoking cessation, and referrals to services related to domestic violence, mental health, and substance abuse.

Every Friday morning a 20-minute meditation session is provided to help clients relieve stress. Classes are held under the auspices of the Occupation, Safety, and Health Administration to provide clients with guidance in protecting themselves from injury in the workplace and promoting ways for maintaining good relationships with employers. Assistance is also provided in accessing affordable health care.

The thrust for all of these services provided by the Millionair Club Charity is to "rebuild lives one job at a time" (Annual Report) while providing the essential support to bring dignity for each individual in keeping with the vision of the founders.

Sources: Mary Henry interview with Brent Herrmann, Director of Programs, Millionair Club Charity, February 28, 2014; Mary Henry interview with Angele Leaptrot, Director of Client Services, Millionair Club Charity, May 30, 2014; Linnea Westerlind, Communications/Marketing, Millionair Club Charity, email to Mary Henry, May 2014, in possession of Mary Henry, Seattle, Washington; Christine Rylko, Director of Volunteer and Special Events, Millionair Club Charity, email to Mary Henry, May 2014, in possession of Mary Henry; J. W. Maxwell, "As a Matter of Fact: The Millionair Club," The Seattle Times, April 21, 1928, p. 6; "Who Won," Ibid., March 15, 1939, p. 2; Ray Ruppert, "Hunger on Skid Road," Ibid., March 18, 1971, p. A-19; Ray Ruppert, "'Mr. Millionair' Retires at 86," Ibid., February 2, 1974, p. A-10; "Event Honors Founder," Ibid., October 4, 1980, p. A-8; Charles E. Brown, "Seattle's 'Millionair' Had a Wealth of Human Kindness," Ibid., January 4, 1984, p. E-17; Elouise Schumacher, "'Batting Averages Improving' at the Millionair Club," Ibid., May 9, 1984, p. G-2; Emmett Watson, "Millionair Club: Down-and-outers Have a Place That Cares How They're Making Out," Ibid., December 18, 1984, p. B-1; Don Duncan, "From Rags to Respect," Ibid., December 21, 1986, p. A-1; Safiya Merchant, "Basement Farm Sprouts at Millionair Club Charity," Ibid., February 18, 2014, p. B-1; "Ordinary Folks Pay to Help Needy," Seattle Post Intelligencer, October 12, 1981, p. C-1; James R. Warren, Seattle: 150 Years of Progress (Carlsbad, CA: Heritage Media Corporation, 2001); Millionair Club Charity website accessed June 10, 2014 (www.millionairclub.org); "We Rebuild Lives One Job at a Time," 2013 Annual Report, Millionair Club Charity website accessed June 10, 2014 (http://millionairclubcharity.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/millionair-club-charity-2013-annual-report.pdf).

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