The Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) opened its doors in November 1979, when the first clients were welcomed into Seattle’s Morrison Hotel. Remarkably, those doors have remained continually open, providing a safe shelter for thousands of our fellow citizens — a total of more than 3 million “bed nights” so far.
The shelter and permanent housing units in the Morrison serve people with serious conditions such as mental illness, addiction and medical challenges. This highly vulnerable group of people rely on the Morrison, not only for shelter, but also as the hub for providing services to help end the cycle of homelessness. DESC is often the only placement option available to health care and law enforcement workers who work with these vulnerable people.
Recently the Morrison has been in the news for another reason. After a scary assault in which an apparently unprovoked person physically attacked two people on the street, the King County Superior Court’s presiding judge ordered the courthouse’s Third Avenue entrance, across the street from the Morrison, to be temporarily closed. Media coverage of the closure noted the presence of the Morrison and the homeless population it serves, as well as the Union Gospel Mission nearby.
The clear implication has been that the presence of these programs serving people with many challenges explains the rise in assaults outside the courthouse. The truth is there are many reasons why the area has a high concentration of troubled people. That the shelter is there no doubt helps to make that block a place where homeless people with nowhere else to go congregate, but so does the proximity to the county jail, the persistent, decades-old drug market at the end of the block, longstanding use of City Hall Park adjacent to the Courthouse as a place for alcohol and other substance consumption, and (of course) that it’s all right next to Seattle’s original Skid Road.
Yes, there is a problem on that stretch of Third Avenue. But what is different now from a decade ago is that we have thousands more suffering on the streets than in any period before.
Mental illness and addiction are stressful, chronic, relapsing conditions hard to manage in the best of circumstances. With the added horror of no place to live, more problems will erupt. We now see some of the outcomes of our failure to adequately respond to our homelessness crisis: more incidents of violence or other acting-out behavior and inadequate responses. It happens that a portion of this concentrates around the courthouse, as it always has, but with more of it overall we have reached a crisis point.
Let’s be clear: the mere presence of some homeless people or those with behavioral health disabilities does not make it inevitable that there will be a flood of random assaults. But when the number of individuals in crisis suffering on our streets increases far beyond the capacity of the system to provide basic care for them, then you will have situations like the ones now around the courthouse.
What are the solutions? The bottom line is that we need to house everyone, and get those in crisis the help that they need. That requires resources. Meanwhile, greater law enforcement presence may help address some of the symptoms, but the underlying causes of the problem will remain.
DESC stands ready to partner with elected officials and other organizations to improve public safety in the Courthouse vicinity. Longer term, we’d like to consider how smaller shelters across more locations would improve operations and outcomes for our clients, as we have experienced in operating other shelters with more space, flexibility, and robust services in recent years. But that too will require significant public investment.
In the meantime, DESC will continue to live up to our 40-year mission to help and house our most vulnerable and marginalized neighbors, including those living with mental illness, substance-use disorders, and other disabilities. We continue to believe that everyone deserves a space to call home.