If you wanted a meeting with Scott Morrow, you had to wake up early for it.
Three days a week, Morrow woke up at 4 a.m., made 5 gallons of coffee and served it downtown — most recently outside the Seattle Art Museum. Rain or shine, over morning coffee was where he connected with people just leaving the overnight shelters and campers in tent cities seeking his advice.
By the time Morrow’s cancer diagnosis put an end to the practice, he had been serving coffee for more than three decades. Morrow — born Nov. 22, 1957, in Everett — died of pancreatic cancer on April 19 at age 64, leaving behind two activist organizations and Seattle’s homelessness system forever changed in both rhetoric and funding.
Long before Seattle’s housing crisis would spiral into well above 10,000 people on the street and a multimillion-dollar budget to address it, Morrow was driven by a simple conviction: Homeless people had needs beyond food and a place to sleep. They needed community and a sense of control in their lives and they couldn’t wait until housing or shelter space became available.
Morrow’s convictions have shaped current homelessness policy, most notably the rise of organized outdoor communities. However, Morrow’s uncompromising and confrontational style led to numerous falling-outs with other homelessness leaders and his hardball tactics of staging protest encampments rankled politicians.
To some, Morrow was prickly and difficult to work with. Others say he was ahead of his time in recognizing the dignity in everyone and inspired hundreds to claim political power despite their circumstances.
“Here’s a guy saying ‘you have power, you have authority, you have a voice and I’m going to help you learn how to use it,’” said Ted Hunter, an attorney for the Morrow-founded nonprofit SHARE/WHEEL, which operates tent cities.
The degree to which Morrow’s work will outlast him remains to be seen.
While tiny-house villages are now mainstream and the idea that solutions to homelessness must include what homeless people actually experience is more popular than ever, the future of Morrow’s ideal of entirely self-managed tent cities and tiny-house villages is unclear.
A vision for self-management and democracy
If there was something everyone agreed on when it came to Scott Morrow, it was his devotion to his work. Morrow once went seven years without a salary and worked through his cancer diagnosis, said his partner, Peggy Hotes.
Operation Nightwatch executive director Rick Reynolds said he’ll never forget the summer night he was handing out ice cream at a protest campout at the King County Administration Building and found Morrow sleeping on the ground.
“I realized this guy is going to get up, go down and serve coffee at 6 o’clock,” Reynolds said. “Why? He believed passionately that every human being is worth the sacrifice.”
Morrow pioneered the concept of self-managed tent cities — one of the first in the country to do so — creating Seattle’s first modern democratically led encampments where homeless people could elect their own leaders and decide their own rules.
Morrow’s tent cities are credited as a precursor to sanctioned encampments and tiny-house villages, a model that King County currently uses to house hundreds.
The enthusiasm from business owners and public officials for tiny-house villages is a departure from when organizations were fined for hosting tent cities and Morrow was arrested during sweeps.
Throughout, Morrow shied away from press attention and encouraged homeless campers to use their own experiences to influence policy.
When Hunter, SHARE/WHEEL’s attorney, represented the organization in a legal battle to secure permits for the tent cities, Morrow insisted Hunter regularly meet with over a dozen homeless representatives to reach consensus on legal strategy.
Mandatory meetings and “participation credits” are central to Morrow’s tent cities and tiny-house villages, meaning residents must do things like join committees, work security shifts or testify at public meetings.
Andrew Constantino, who lived in Tent City 3 in North Seattle and was a staff member at Morrow’s tiny-home village Nickelsville, said the mandatory meetings could 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 want to argue about a dirty microwave oven or an empty milk carton.
The meetings also gave a platform to homeless people, who are often ignored and harassed, to speak about whatever they wanted, he said. As a facilitator at the meetings, Morrow would print out packets of newspaper articles on current events and encourage discussion. Suddenly, campers would be speaking about their experiences being swept and finding solidarity knowing others had experienced the same thing.
“A lot of people feel atomized and separated in our world today,” Constantino said. “SHARE and Nickelsville offered a refuge from that.”
However, people could be barred from a tent city for a week, or permanently, for skipping meetings. Allegations also swirled that certain members only testified in City Council meetings or protested to avoid being kicked out.
Morrow’s leadership style also ignited controversy, which, depending on who is talking, can yield a list of seemingly contradictory descriptions.
Some remember him as quiet, calm and often hanging back to allow others to speak their mind. Others have called him an authoritarian and accused him of threatening to withhold services during a disagreement. Still others considered him a crucial political champion and strategist.
Morrow often saw things as “black and white” and “the cost of his allyship was complete agreement,” said Real Change founder Tim Harris.
Harris said he and Morrow had a falling-out during former Mayor Mike McGinn’s administration over a piece of legislation to sanction homeless encampments after years of “horrifying sweeps.”
But at the 11th hour, Morrow had an objection to a wonky provision that wouldn’t allow encampments to be in residential zones.
Harris thought fighting the provision was “meaningless” and inconsequential. But Morrow refused to support the legislation, believing that 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 dismayed.
“We basically rescued defeat from the jaws of victory,” he said.
Sanctioned encampments were eventually 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 scrutiny and lost financial and political support.
In 2018, SHARE, which used to manage over a dozen shelters, saw its budget shrink and the next year, the Low Income Housing Institute, which had initially been formed to serve as the fiscal sponsor for Morrow’s organizations, formally separated from Morrow’s Nickelsville in an ugly dispute that centered on the foundations of Morrow’s vision — who gets to decide who lives in a community and whether residents had to actively work toward finding permanent housing.
The institute is now the largest operator of tiny-house villages for King County.
Hotes, Morrow’s partner, said the complaints were overblown or resulted from misunderstanding from people who didn’t want Morrow’s movement to succeed.
“Is it controversial to fight for social justice, for homeless people to have a say in how their shelters and tiny-house villages operate?” she asked. “What it boils down to is empowering poor people and there are a lot of people who don’t like to do that.”
When Jarvis Capucion lost his housing in 2010, the participation credits system at Tent City 3 forced him to come out of his shell when all he wanted to do was shut down.
After losing his housing again during the pandemic last year, Capucion now lives at the Nickelsville tiny-house village in the Central District. Having 14 other people to talk to, a clean bathroom and functioning 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 just managed to secure funding after picketing the Human Services Department, Capucion said. But now money is funneled through new players at the nascent Regional Homelessness Authority, which has indicated it’s not interested in scaling up tiny-house villages.
Capucion admitted the villages are not for everyone but argued they provide a service and will fight for funding.
“[Morrow] made sure SHARE was never about him. It was about the people and the people are going to keep SHARE going,” said Anitra Freeman, a board president for SHARE.
Even though Constantino separated from Morrow and his organizations over philosophical differences, he still respects what Morrow helped create.
In the over four-year period they worked together, Constantino remembers Morrow taking a vacation only once. Morrow made Constantino swear he wouldn’t tell anyone he was away and for three days, Constantino made up excuses for why Morrow was busy.
Looking back, Constantino said Morrow likely feared that without him in town, politicians would take the opportunity to remove his tent city. But at the time, Morrow had a simple explanation: “While the cat’s away, the mice will play.”
Besides Hotes, Morrow is survived by a brother, Todd Morrow; his mother, Shirley Briggs Morrow; and his father, Edward Morrow.
Two remembrance services are planned: 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 and incorrectly stated Rick Reynolds’s title.