For the first winter in 41 years, the main floor of the old Morrison Hotel in downtown Seattle is quiet. Before the pandemic, hundreds of homeless people per night would be sleeping on bunks and mats to escape increasingly frigid temperatures.
“You can imagine for a minute we solved homelessness,” said the Morrison’s housing project manager, Stephen Appleyard, chuckling as he walked through empty halls in October.
For four decades, the hotel has temporarily housed people who struggle in other shelters, because of mental illness, addiction or physical disability.
But now, it’s empty: The inhabitants were moved to another hotel, in Renton, as the pandemic forced shelter operators to distance residents. There, they stay in individual rooms. And the nonprofit that runs the Morrison wants to keep it that way.
Dan Malone, executive director of Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) , has vowed never again to open a large-scale shelter where several people share close living quarters — often called “congregate shelter.”
Now, he’s pressuring the city and county to do the same for thousands of congregate shelter beds locally.
“We have been disenchanted with the model for a long time, but never found the strength to insist on making it humane until the pandemic,” Malone said. “Now we plan not to go back to that way of doing things.”
Malone’s campaign would leave a sizable hole in Seattle’s bed count. Closing The Morrison would remove 250 beds from Seattle’s shelter system. DESC runs 500 total — one of the largest shelter operators in the region.
Jon Scholes, director of the Downtown Seattle Association and DESC board member, doesn’t think abandoning congregate shelters is realistic given the growing number of tents on the street.
“We’ve got a lot more people living outside than we did several months ago,” Scholes said.
Scholes said it’s more important for the county and city to think quickly and creatively about how they can bring people inside now. Congregate shelters should be less packed, he said, but they’re the only option the city and county have while housing is being built.
“I don’t think they need to go away entirely, I think we need to make them less dense, and make them more dignified,” Scholes said.
A spokesperson for Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who fast-tracked development of 600 permanent supportive housing units in June, said in an email that she sees both shelter and permanent housing as part of the city’s strategy.
“Mayor Durkan agrees with an all-of-the-above approach to creating tiny home villages, safer 24/7 shelter, hotels, and housing as we enter our second year navigating the COVID-19 environment,” the spokesperson wrote.
The problem with shelter
For decades, advocates and public officials have pointed to shelter as a sort of paradox: More shelter beds means that the growing population of people living on the street in King County can get off the street — for some, a measure of survival. Shelter expansion often is politically popular because it gets people out of sight who might otherwise be camping in neighborhoods or sleeping in the doorways of businesses.
But it doesn’t end someone’s homelessness, and many say that the dollars invested in shelter are dollars that could be funding construction on affordable housing. Shelters can become de facto permanent housing.
“We have thousands of people just languishing in shelters because there’s no affordable housing left in the county,” said Debbie Thiele, managing director in the western U.S. for the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a nonprofit that sets nationwide standards for supportive housing.
People like Malone see another option — permanent supportive housing. His agency shelters people who often need more than just an apartment key to thrive.
Permanent supportive housing is “an unfortunately well-kept secret,” according to Thiele. She said it’s the surest way to get someone with mental and drug use disorders off the street, but it hasn’t been heavily funded by the federal government for years. That is in part because it comes with a high upfront cost.
Nonprofits have to patch together funding for each project from federal, state, city and philanthropic dollars — not just for capital costs, but to fund the case managers and staff in the building. More than 90% of the Morrison Hotel’s permanent residents have severe, persistent psychiatric disorders and 70% have substance-use disorders, according to management.
And in some cases, it doesn’t work — from July 2019 to August 2020, at least 3% of the people newly placed into permanent supportive housing in King County returned to homelessness within the year.
“Housing-ready” vs. “housing first”
Dodge Nearing Jr. might still be cycling through state hospitals, rehab, his parents’ house and the street without permanent supportive housing.
Nearing first came to the Morrison Hotel paranoid, schizophrenic, addicted and with a felony record. He says that was in 1979, the year DESC was founded, though the agency’s records don’t go back that far.
His disease and self-medication led to Nearing lighting himself on fire — possibly a suicide attempt, according to his brother and DESC records, or an act at the behest of his illness. He lost his legs and the fingers on his left hand.
“I thought people were trying to kill me,” Nearing said.
It was a struggle to survive, much less to support himself. For decades after, Nearing’s parents would attempt to take care of him, but his mental state and drug use proved too much and he’d be back in a hospital or on the street.
As state hospitals moved away from institutionalizing patients, they often offered them bus tickets to downtown Seattle. At the same time, the rough but cheap single-room occupancy hotels were disappearing in downtown Seattle, brought down by tightening fire codes and steamrolled by urban renewal.
Nearing had increasingly few options to avoid the street.
Malone, then a young Jesuit volunteer who started working at DESC in 1989, saw this shift happen in real time. The city of Seattle, a group of churches and the Washington Alliance for the Mentally Ill agreed to open the Morrison Hotel shelter with few barriers to entry, so even people with serious mental illnesses who drank or used drugs could get in. It was a new approach at the time for Seattle shelters, which were mostly run by religious organizations and focused on getting people into faith-based recovery programs.
At first, most of the residents were people down on their luck who needed help while they found work and could save up enough money to move out of a shelter.
In the ‘90s, that shifted to largely people like Nearing, whose issues meant they could never climb out of poverty.
In the 2000s, Nearing returned in an agitated state. Staff reports say he yelled at the air, couldn’t hold on to his clothing and had his wheelchair stolen out from under him more than once.
But the Morrison was more than just a shelter by this time. In the early ‘00s, the old hotel rooms above the shelter space in the Morrison were renovated and turned into permanent supportive housing.
DESC originally prioritized that housing for people who were “housing-ready” — prepared to try to stay sober or whose struggles with mental illness weren’t too intense. But that meant the rest were stuck with either congregate shelter or the street, and their issues often got worse. So in the ’90s, the nonprofit started to put people up in housing while they were still using drugs and struggling with mental illness — a strategy called “housing first,” years before the term caught on nationally.
Now Nearing has a mental health case worker, a housing case manager who checks on him every day, a worker who cleans his apartment and a doctor in the building.
Nearing’s Social Security checks, combined with a Section 8 voucher tied to the room, pays his rent.
Nearing completed chemical dependency treatment for his yearslong crack use. He still drinks sometimes, but not in a way that causes problems for himself or other tenants, management said.
A shelter leader changes direction
DESC has long influenced local and federal policy regarding help for homeless people to get off the street and into housing.
Research done at its facilities that function like the Morrison showed such success — and savings for the city in terms of a reduction in 911 responses — the model was later adopted at the national level, said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“We think of them as a leader in that way,” Berg said.
The organization has also expanded its mental health services to make up for gaps in the federal and state systems.
And the agency still offers what it did at DESC’s founding — congregate shelter. With no alternatives, more people were in need.
“We weren’t able to get rid of it, even though we know shelter isn’t a solution to anything other than survival and alleviation of suffering, really,” said Malone.
To build enough permanent supportive housing to replace these spots, the city and county would need a massive infusion of money — at least $1.6 billion, according to one estimate from the Third Door Coalition, an alliance of businesses and homeless advocates focused on reducing chronic homelessness, which puts the need for permanent supportive housing in King County at 6,500 units.
That is double what exists right now. The coalition estimates that the $1.6 billion would cover construction, followed by millions per year in maintenance and services.
Portland and Los Angeles have approved massive bonds and taxes in recent years to build thousands of units of supportive housing, but the Seattle area is just beginning to set aside significant money from a levy and a recently passed county sales tax to do the same.
Right now, close to 700 taxpayer-funded units are currently in development or under construction in Seattle, according to the Seattle Office of Housing, and almost 200 are being built in Shoreline and Kent, according to the county.
Almost half of those will be owned by Downtown Emergency Service Center. The organization already owns about a quarter of what exists, plus 100 under construction and 320 in the pipeline. These are largely financed by public and philanthropic dollars.
While actually saying goodbye to congregate shelter might not be in the offing, the declaration that the Morrison Hotel shelter won’t reopen was a challenge to the public, the city and the county, said Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness.
“They’re acknowledging that even though they were quote-unquote ‘doing their best’ as an organization, they weren’t doing right by people,” Eisinger said. “And that’s profound, and brave, and I think that needs to be recognized. Because, in fact, none of us is doing right by homeless people.”
A previous version of this article misstated the year and circumstance in which the units above The Morrison shelter opened as permanent supportive housing. They were renovated in the early ‘00s by DESC.