Event organizer

Scott Morrow, longtime organizer and patron of Seattle’s Small Villages, dies

The Seattle Times’ Homeless Project is funded by BECU, the Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, the Seattle Foundation, and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over the content of Project Homeless.

If you wanted a meeting with Scott Morrow, you had to get up early for it.

Three days a week, Morrow woke up at 4 a.m., brewed 5 gallons of coffee, and served it downtown — most recently outside the Seattle Art Museum. Rain or shine, it was at morning coffee that he connected with people who had just left shelters for the night and campers in tent cities seeking of his advice.

By the time Morrow’s cancer diagnosis ended the practice, it had been serving coffee for more than three decades. Morrow – born November 22, 1957 in Everett – died of pancreatic cancer on April 19 at the age of 64, leaving behind two activist organizations and Seattle’s homelessness system changed to never so much in rhetoric as in funding.

Long before Seattle’s housing crisis reached well over 10,000 people on the streets and a multi-million dollar budget to deal with it, Morrow was driven by a simple belief: the homeless had other needs. as food and a place to sleep. They needed community and a sense of control in their lives and they couldn’t wait for housing or shelter to become available.

Morrow’s beliefs have shaped current homelessness policy, including the rise of organized outdoor communities. However, Morrow’s hard-line and confrontational style led to numerous falling outs with other homelessness leaders, and his tough tactics of organizing protest encampments angered politicians.

For some, Morrow was thorny and difficult to work with. Others say he was ahead of his time in recognizing the dignity of everyone and inspired hundreds to claim political power despite their circumstances.

“Here’s a guy saying ‘you’ve got power, you’ve got authority, you’ve got a voice and I’m going to help you learn how to use it,'” said nonprofit attorney Ted Hunter. profit-making SHARE/WHEEL founded by Morrow, which operates tent cities.

The extent to which Morrow’s work will survive him remains to be seen.

As villages of tiny houses are now common and the idea that solutions to homelessness must include what homeless people actually go through is more popular than ever, the future of Morrow’s ideal of towns of entirely self-managed tents and villages of small houses is not clear.

A vision of self-management and democracy

If there was one thing everyone agreed on when it came to Scott Morrow, it was his dedication to his job. Morrow once went seven years without pay and worked through his cancer diagnosis, his partner, Peggy Hotes, said.

Operation Nightwatch founder Rick Reynolds said he will never forget the summer night he was handing out ice cream during a protest encampment at the King County Administration Building and found Morrow asleep on the ground.

“I realized this guy was going to get up, come down, and serve coffee at 6 a.m.,” Reynolds said. “Why? He passionately believed that every human being was worth the sacrifice.

Morrow pioneered the concept of self-governing tent cities — one of the first in the nation to do so — by creating the first democratically-run modern encampments in Seattle where homeless people could elect their own leaders and set their own rules. .

Morrow’s tent cities are considered a precursor to sanctioned encampments and cottage towns, a model King County currently uses to house hundreds.

The enthusiasm of small house villages among business owners and officials is different from when organizations were fined for hosting tent cities and when Morrow was arrested during sweeps.

Throughout, Morrow avoided press attention and encouraged homeless campers to use their own experiences to influence policy.

When SHARE/WHEEL’s attorney, Hunter, represented the organization in a legal battle to obtain permits for tent cities, Morrow insisted that Hunter meet regularly with more than a dozen homeless representatives to reach consensus on legal strategy.

Mandatory meetings and “participation credits” are at the heart of Morrow’s Tent Cities and Tiny House Villages, meaning residents must do things like join committees, work security shifts, or testify at meetings. public meetings.

Andrew Constantino, who lived in Tent City 3 in North Seattle and was a staff member in the small village of Morrow, Nickelsville, said the mandatory meetings can be tense and short but also beautiful in a messy way. Sometimes most of the 60 people at the meeting just wanted it to be over. Other times, individuals would like to argue over a dirty microwave oven or an empty milk carton.

The meetings also gave homeless people, who are often ignored and harassed, a platform to talk about anything they wanted, he said. As a facilitator at meetings, Morrow printed packets of newspaper articles about current events and encouraged discussion. Suddenly campers were talking about their experiences of being swept away and finding solidarity in knowing that others had been through the same thing.

“A lot of people feel atomized and separated in our world today,” Constantino said. “SHARE and Nickelsville offered refuge from this.”

However, people could be kicked out of a tent city for a week, or permanently, for skipping meetings. Allegations also circulated that some members only testified at city council meetings or protested to avoid being expelled.

Morrow’s leadership style has also sparked controversy, which, depending on who is speaking, can yield a list of seemingly contradictory descriptions.

Some remember him as quiet, calm and often withdrawn to allow others to express themselves. Others called him bossy and accused him of threatening to suspend services during a disagreement. Still others saw him as a political champion and crucial strategist.

Morrow often saw things as “black and white” and “the cost of his alliance was a complete deal,” said Real Change founder Tim Harris.

Harris said he and Morrow had a falling out under former Mayor Mike McGinn’s administration over a bill to sanction homeless encampments after years of “horrifying sweeps”.

But by the 11th hour, Morrow had an objection to a flawed layout that wouldn’t allow encampments to be in residential areas.

Harris thought fighting the provision was “meaningless” and inconsequential. But Morrow refused to back the legislation, saying homeless people should be able to live anywhere. At the hearing, member after member of Nickelsville and SHARE lined up to testify against the legislation, Harris recalled.

Morrow was furious and Harris was appalled.

“We basically saved defeat from the jaws of victory,” he said.

Sanctioned encampments were finally allowed two years later when homelessness was declared a state of emergency – but they are still not allowed in residential areas.

Uncertain future for Morrow’s legacy

In recent years, Morrow’s ideal of self-management has come under intense scrutiny and lost financial and political support.

In 2018, SHARE, which previously operated more than a dozen shelters, saw its budget shrink, and the following year the Low Income Housing Institute, which had originally been formed to serve as a fiscal sponsor for Morrow’s organizations, stepped up. is officially split from Morrow’s Nickelsville in an ugly dispute centered on the fundamentals of Morrow’s vision – who decides who lives in a community and whether residents should actively work to find permanent housing.

The institute is now the largest operator of Tiny Home Villages for King County.

Hotes, Morrow’s partner, said the complaints were exaggerated or the result of a misunderstanding by people who didn’t want Morrow’s move to succeed.

“Is it controversial to fight for social justice, for homeless people to have a say in how their shelters and small house villages operate?” she asked. “Which comes down to empowering the poor and there are a lot of people who don’t like to do that.”

When Jarvis Capucion lost his home in 2010, Tent City 3’s participation credit system forced him out of his shell when he only wanted to shut down.

After losing her home again during the pandemic last year, Capucion now lives in the tiny house village of Nickelsville in the Central District. Having 14 other people to talk to, a clean bathroom and a working kitchen is crucial for his mental health, he said. However, the future of the village, which costs about $80,000 a year to operate, is in question.

Last year, Nickelsville was successful in securing funding after picketing the Department of Social Services, Capucion said. But now the money is being funneled through new players in the fledgling Regional Homeless Authority, who have indicated they are not interested in expanding Tiny House Villages.

Capucion admitted that the villages are not for everyone but argued that they provide a service and will fight for funding.

“[Morrow] made sure SHARE never talked about him. It was about the people and the people are going to keep SHARE working,” said Anitra Freeman, Chair of SHARE’s Board of Directors.

Even though Constantino parted ways with Morrow and his organizations due to philosophical differences, he still respects what Morrow helped create.

During the more than four years they worked together, Constantino recalls that Morrow only took a vacation once. Morrow made Constantino swear that he would not tell anyone he was away and for three days Constantino made up excuses as to why Morrow was busy.

Looking back, Constantino said Morrow was likely worried that without him in town politicians would take the opportunity to pull his tent city out. But at the time, Morrow had a simple explanation: “While the cat is gone, the mice will play.”

Besides Hotes, Morrow is survived by one brother, Todd Morrow; his mother, Shirley Briggs Morrow; and her father, Edward Morrow.

Two memorial services are scheduled: one at 11 a.m. May 7 at First Presbyterian Church, 2936 Rockefeller Ave., Everett, and the other at 3 p.m. May 14 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, 1245 10th Ave. E., Seattle.

An earlier version of this story included an incorrect version of Shirley Briggs Morrow’s name.