Disclosure: I serve on the DESC board of directors and have been tangentially involved in some of the issues raised in this article.]
On the evening of November 19, 1979, a momentous thing happened in Seattle: the newly formed Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) first opened the doors to the Morrison Hotel homeless shelter, on 3rd Avenue across from the King County Courthouse. For the next 40 plus years, the Morrison, sheltering 254 people nightly (out of the approximately 2,000 pre-COVID shelter beds in the city), never shut its doors. Not once, not for a single night.
But then came the pandemic, and everything changed.
During that 40 years before COVID-19 struck Seattle, DESC developed a national reputation as an innovator in the Housing-First model of service delivery. Housing-First is an approach that works to move chronically homeless people into permanent supportive housing as quickly as possible on the theory that when a person is stably housed it is much easier to address the underlying issues that led to that person’s homelessness.
Over those 40 years, the Morrison provided Seattle’s most vulnerable homeless people more than 3,000,000 bed nights of shelter. The shelter quickly became a central element of Seattle’s homeless response. When patients were ready to be discharged from Harborview or local hospitals and had no place else to go, they typically were brought to the Morrison. When Seattle police encountered someone in crisis on the streets, they often dropped them off at the Morrison.
But doesn’t mean that the Morrison shelter has been a space particularly conducive to addressing the needs of homeless people. Far from it. The underlying emphasis of the Morrison shelter has always been on quantity over quality; the intent has been to maximize the number of people who can shelter there. That has meant that the shelter space has always been tightly packed, loud, and chaotic. “The Morrison is the biggest, most crowded shelter in the city, serving the people with the most profound problems,” explains DESC Executive Director Daniel Malone. “It’s a crisis center, basically.”
On April 10, the shelter at the Morrison, its population already down by more than half due to the pandemic, shut down entirely. The 190 permanent supportive housing units on the building’s other floors, which house formerly homeless DESC clients, remain in use, but the second-floor shelter, once a noisy and crowded hub of not-quite-controlled activity, could not continue to operate in the midst of a pandemic without putting residents at unacceptable risk of contracting coronavirus.
The people staying there, along with DESC staff, moved to the Red Lion in Renton, a vacant hotel rented by King County for 90 days. The move may well have saved shelter residents from becoming a coronavirus hotspot. At the time of the move, two people staying at the Morrison shelter had recently tested positive for COVID-19, but the residents that were relocated out of the congregate shelter setting to the Red Lion have remained free of the virus. In another large Seattle congregate shelter run by Catholic Community Services, an outbreak of the virus quickly spread through the site, infecting several dozen residents.
The Morrison shelter had undergone a renovation in 2003 that replaced the original mats-on-the-floor approach with tightly packed, smaller-than-normal bunk beds in the main shelter space, but social distancing is still impossible in that setting. As Malone put it to me, “It’s very cramped quarters. If you roll over the wrong way you might hit the next person.”
So now the question arises: In this post-COVID era, can the Morrison Hotel shelter ever reopen? And even if it can, should it? Malone believes it shouldn’t. “We actually need to get people out of shared spaces. It’s not enough to reduce crowding in these shelters.”
In part, that is due to the ongoing health threat posed by the pandemic. But it is also because, over 40 years of operating the Morrison, DESC has learned from first-hand experience that cramming together as many stressed people coming off the streets as possible into a cramped shelter space is not a great environment for getting those people the help and respite they need. In the loud, packed confines of the Morrison, outbursts and anti-social behavior, including fights, theft and other serious issues, were common. Managing such a volatile environment has been an ongoing challenge for DESC staff.
Move those same people to the Red Lion and give them individual rooms to stay in, and the improvement of the client population has been hard to miss. As the Seattle Times reported last week, “Inside the [Red Lion] shelter, reports of fights, overdoses, violence and threats are down; Renton police are responding to far fewer calls at the hotel than Seattle police did at the Third Avenue shelter… People in mental health crisis are staying more often, instead of walking off and potentially wandering streets in distress. In other King County cities hosting smaller shelters in hotels, shelter staff say similar things are happening.”
In Malone’s ideal scenario, the shelter space that the Morrison provides – and the central role it plays in assisting homeless people exiting the hospital and law enforcement systems – would be split up into multiple locations. Malone envisions a future where the Morrison shelter would be replaced by an equivalent number of beds spread over perhaps three converted motels, with residents housed in individual or perhaps double rooms. “We’d really like to make these shelters smaller,” Malone says.
These new, decentralized shelters would operate more like the enhanced 24/7 low barrier Navigation Center the City opened in July 2017 in Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood (DESC operates the Navigation Center under contract with the City) rather than a congregate shelter like the Morrison. At the Navigation Center, residents share rooms with strangers, but with only about 10 people to a room. The setting is calmer, residents have spaces to store their possessions, and can come and go from the premises as they please. “This would be taking the Navigation Center progress we’ve made and advancing it even more,” Malone says.
Closing the shelter would also have the benefit of improving the situation on Third Avenue near Pioneer Square. Several incidents last year, including an assault where a mentally unstable man attacked two people on the block housing the County Courthouse, led the presiding judge of King County Superior Court to temporarily shutter the Courthouse’s main Third Avenue entrance. Malone says he has had positive conversations with King County Community and Human Services Director Leo Flor, who agrees with Malone that ideally the Morrison should remain shuttered and its population decentralized.
But closing the Morrison won’t be easy. For one thing, the cost of permanently closing such a large and central shelter and dispersing its residents to several smaller shelters would be significant. With government revenues plummeting during the pandemic and the economy in lockdown, no one knows where the money to make such a change might come from.
Malone hopes to convene a conversation with County, City, and philanthropic leaders to discuss the future of the shelter, but the prospect of finding a path forward is very uncertain, particularly on a time scale that would align with the temporary solutions put in place during the pandemic. The County’s lease of the Red Lion in Renton is due to run out at the end of June, for example, and given the complaints from Renton business leaders and elected officials any extension is likely to be short-lived.
Moreover, the loss of the Morrison shelter beds is already creating strains on the system. Pre-COVID the Morrison was accepting more than 10 new people on any given day. Now, there’s no longer a large, centrally located shelter – one that usually had space to squeeze them in – available. Homeless people discharged from Harborview or DESC’s Crisis Solutions Center, or those encountered by Seattle Police or the Mobile Crisis Team, don’t have a place to go. For the newly homeless, “our response right now is to give them a tent. It’s not good,” Malone says.
Still, notwithstanding the void in the system it creates,and given the health threat posed by the pandemic, the Morrison shelter is not going to go back anytime soon to being the crowded, noisy hub it has been for the last four decades. “I would find it extremely difficult to agree to reopen the Morrison [shelter] at its previous scale,” Malone says. “At most, I would want to reopen at half [the size], maybe even less. So a ‘no place for people to go’ scenario is very real.”