Depending on who you talk to, Scott Morrow is either a flawed saint or a well-intentioned authoritarian.

When the longtime poverty activist helped found Seattle’s tent cities, the precursor to what would become the tiny house villages that now house hundreds of homeless people across King County, he had an iron-clad philosophy: The homeless people living there would govern themselves.

It’s a philosophy that transferred to the tiny house villages when they first began replacing tent cities in 2015. Villagers would elect their own leaders, who decide who can move in and who gets kicked out.

Morrow carried that model with him as he and the homeless activist organizations associated with him, Nickelsville and the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE), helped create and run new villages around the city.

The policy won support from local clergy, advocates for homeless people and some city leaders, despite Morrow’s confrontational style of politics and persistent allegations of his heavy-handed approach to discipline in the camps.

“He’s a muddy saint, but he’s a real hero,” said Rev. Rich Lang, one of Morrow’s oldest supporters. “When you’re a leader, and you’re in a cause, you’re not nuanced, you’re not diplomatic and you’re not a nice guy.

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But some current and former villagers say Morrow’s approach also had consequences.

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At one village his organization Nickelsville managed, more than 100 people were kicked out and pushed back to the street in less than a two-year period — more than the number of village residents who got housed in the same time frame, according to records obtained by The Seattle Times and interviews with residents.

One man died a week after he was banned in 2017. That same year, a woman and her five young children, all under the age of 7, were kicked out.

These so-called bars were primary among the reasons Nickelsville and Morrow have lost control of all but two of the villages they ran, and their hold on those is tenuous. Now in charge is the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a nonprofit housing developer that once effectively co-operated some of the villages with Nickelsville.

Morrow denies that so many people were kicked out and has continued to protest his organization’s removal, even living on the floor of a toy tent at one village for several months last year “in solidarity” with supporters living there. But the controversy surrounding Nickelsville’s ousting — and the differing governing philosophies between Morrow’s group and LIHI — has forced many in the faith and advocacy community, as well as homeless people themselves, to pick sides and cast a spotlight on Morrow and his zealous style.

“My feeling is that Scott really doesn’t want to investigate all these reasons why people are being barred, because it’s happening all over the place, and probably 80 percent of them are unwarranted,” said LIHI Executive Director Sharon Lee. “It takes time to sort through them and investigate, and adjudicate — was this person made homeless, and was it unnecessary? And so instead of doing any investigation, he just accepts the norm.”

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“Muddy saint” or “authoritarian”?

Andrew Constantino was at a crossroads the first time he met Morrow. 

He was living a working-class life in Ballard as a cashier at a smoke shop when his rent rose so much that he couldn’t pay the bills. 

Burning through his savings, he went to a shelter run by SHARE, which Morrow co-founded. Constantino was intrigued that shelter residents were involved in running it day-to-day; he began going to leadership meetings, where he met Morrow.

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KNKX Public Radio and The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless spent one year in Washington state’s capital, reporting on how that city grappled with homelessness. New episodes drop every Wednesday. Hear more about what we learned from Olympia’s experience by subscribing to our new podcast “Outsiders.”

The two couldn’t have been more different. Constantino, 44, is a self-described “punk” with bright blue hair, who moved to Seattle in the ’90s grunge era. Morrow, 62, looks like a monk in his wire-framed glasses, gray beard and long hair.

“I was impressed by his intelligence, his writing ability and his clarity of purpose,” Constantino said. But he was also intimidated. “It was obvious that he held a lot of power.”

Morrow had been organizing homeless people for decades, setting up his first formally organized tent city next to the Kingdome in 1990. His mother and brother were active in Snohomish County homeless work, founding a housing nonprofit and organizing churches to respond to homelessness.

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But Morrow has been investigated (though never charged) over allegations that he misused public money and withheld bus tickets from homeless people to pressure them into political activism.

Some church leaders have become less eager to host camps associated with Morrow, said the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness.

“Everybody’s frightened to do it, because they don’t know what baggage is coming with the camp,” Kirlin-Hackett said. He wishes Nickelsville and SHARE would evolve “and not just have this authoritarian as their leader.”

Constantino still found working with Morrow fulfilling. He took a job as a Nickelsville organizer and started spending most of his time with Morrow.

But soon, Constantino said, village leaders started calling him instead of Morrow.

“It’s like the Nickelodeons wanted me to succeed [as Nickelsville organizer], because if I succeed … then they don’t have to deal with Scott,” Constantino said. “That was my impression at the time.”

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Barred from village

It wasn’t until he moved to the Georgetown tiny house village in 2017 that Constantino began to reconsider his allegiance to Morrow.

Georgetown was different than other Nickelsville sites: leaders didn’t decide who to take in, but took referrals from the city’s camp-clearing Navigation Team, who sent people forced out of large encampments where mental health struggles and substance use were common. Nickelsville camps are designed to be clean and sober.

At first, leaders tried to “break in” new villagers to conform to Nickelsville’s rules, according to an internal review by eight current and former members of Georgetown leadership, “asking nonviolent, difficult individuals to leave over minor infractions.”

The Georgetown Tiny Village earlier this month. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
The Georgetown Tiny Village earlier this month. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Leaders and Nickelsville staff banned people for things like verbal threats, missing meetings, “domestic disturbances,” “psychotic break[s],” and, in one instance, “theft of shrimp,” according to records from the village bookkeepers and residents. In several cases, people were barred for “unknown” reasons.

One Georgetown villager named Willie Tedder was kicked out over racist slurs in late May 2017. He was hit by a car a week later while leaving an unsanctioned camp he’d moved to near South Dearborn Street and Interstate 5, according to an email Morrow shared with The Seattle Times and a Washington state trooper report.

Erica Sims, 28, had only been in Georgetown village two weeks in September 2017 with her five children when she was told she’d been barred. Records from the time said she hadn’t attended a “participation credit” event — her options included Nickelsville meetings or political rallies — and had allegedly altered “structures on site.” Her children weren’t recorded as bars, but as “voluntary move-outs.”

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Sims said she did not break those rules. When LIHI heard about Sims’ predicament, they paid for her to move into housing.

Many of these bars weren’t reported to the city and the community advisory council.

Banned residents can petition Morrow and what’s known as the Nickelsville Central Committee to overturn a bar. Only nine were overturned.

The villager’s internal review called Morrow’s appeal process dysfunctional, “stalling appeals and directly insisting on bars.” 

“If you’re out of favor, the rules come down heavily on you,” Constantino said. “It’s more like Stalin: Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.” Morrow disputed these characterizations.

In a 2019 evaluation, students at University of Washington’s School of Public Health found Nickelsville’s rule structure supported “community cohesion” and “agency” for residents. But they also found residents thought there was favoritism in who was given second chances and “unwritten rules” not always communicated to villagers.

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The study also recommended Nickelsville commission a follow-up evaluation on bars and appeals “to further investigate these processes.” Morrow would not go on the record when asked if Nickelsville has incorporated any of the recommendations.

He called villagers’ numbers “exaggeration, hyperbole, fantasy.”

“There certainly weren’t that many bars,” Morrow said. “If there were, they were doing it secretly.”

Whatever the precise number, enough bars were happening that the city flagged them as a “major issue” to LIHI, which at the time provided case management for the village. 

LIHI was already aware; to-date LIHI has paid almost $90,000 in hotel fees to put up people that Nickelsville leadership barred from all three villages they ran, including Georgetown. In 2016 at the Othello tiny house village alone, LIHI spent $35,328 to put up individuals and families booted from it.

Nickelsville is not the only homeless organization that bans people who break their rules. The Downtown Emergency Services Center, for example, trespassed 14 people last year from their downtown shelter. One analysis showed LIHI, which runs many affordable apartment complexes, had one of the highest eviction rates for landlords in the city in 2017.

But the number of ejections from Georgetown was much higher than DESC. Morrow contends that they’ve since decreased, but that is difficult to independently verify.

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By February, Constantino was tired of leadership. He resigned from Nickelsville staff, but remained living in Georgetown.

After a heated few months of dispute, the village voted out Nickelsville in favor of being directly managed by LIHI. Constantino took a job with LIHI as a site coordinator, and he and the villagers rewrote the camp rules.

In early June, Constantino heard he’d been permanently barred from all Nickelsville sites. He wrote an appeal letter and said he never heard back.

Morrow said that’s not true.“[Nickelsville leadership] voted to uphold the bar, and he bloody well knows it,” Morrow said.

Though they don’t talk, Constantino still considers Morrow a friend.

“Scott teaches people to rebel, and then they rebel against him,” Constantino said. “Eventually everyone becomes a rebel.”

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In a way, Morrow’s dream of self-governing camps is nearly over, at least in the tiny house villages: LIHI now has final say at most tiny house villages in Seattle over who can be barred, although residents still have control over other decisions. A city spokesperson said excessive bars are “one of the primary reasons LIHI was brought in to manage daily operations at these sites,” but wouldn’t confirm if the city would work with Nickelsville in the future.

Despite some of his misgivings about Morrow’s methods, Kirlin-Hackett says Seattle shouldn’t abandon the self-determining model that he helped to create. 

“How do we stay a model that’s informed by the people in it?” Kirlin-Hackett said. “It looks like the model would work, but it’s hard … when they’re under an organization that puts their leader first.”