If you’re a regular reader of this blog, the name Scott Morrow will be a familiar one. If you’re not a reader, Morrow is the Seattle man who founded and controls two Seattle-area homeless shelter organizations. His Rotund Eminence can regularly be glimpsed at city council hearings and public demonstrations, looking like a cross between a hippie and an overgrown garden gnome.
Recently Morrow was in the news again. And not in a good way, as usual. Seems he’s been involved in another power struggle at one of his Nickelsville homeless encampments in downtown Seattle and the residents gave him his walking papers with a “no confidence” vote. At first, Morrow appeared to be going gracefully. The next day, he sent this e-mail around to the people at camp:
However, on Friday, February 6, the Seattle Times published an article describing how two key Morrow allies—the church that controls the land Nickelsville is on and a huge non-profit housing group called LIHI–threatened to pull the plug on the camp if Morrow wasn’t reinstated as boss.
From the Times article:
“It saddens us to inform you of the serious consequences of your recent vote of no confidence in staff person Scott Morrow,” the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd’s Rev. Steven Olsen wrote in an email.
“Scott’s role as staff person for the camp and liaison for the church host is an essential component of our working relationship. For this reason, your decision makes it impossible for us to continue as church host for Nickelsville,” Olsen added.
Olsen’s church controls the site under an agreement with property owner Coho Real Estate. The church has served as Nickelsville’s official host because a city law passed in 2011 allows religious entities to host tent cities with no permit and no time limit.
The Low Income Housing Institute, a financial backer of Nickelsville, also is abandoning the encampment, said the organization’s executive director, Sharon Lee.
“We have no confidence in the residents right now,” Lee said. “They’re not following the rules of self-management and they also voted out Scott Morrow.”
The Nickelsville residents who had booted Morrow were about to get back to the cold, rainy streets of Seattle if they didn’t tow Morrow’s line. Not surprisingly, the campers caved in. Three days later, on February 9, the Seattle Weekly ran a piece on the rebels’ capitulation . . .
In an email sent to local media today, Scott Morrow – the long-time homeless organizer and advocate who was ousted as the leader of Nickelsville on Jan. 29 – announced that he was reinstated by popular vote over the weekend. It’s an important development, and one that signals the end of a coup that threatened the camp’s future.
As we reported Friday, Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), which pays for water, honey buckets and other services at the encampment, and Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, the church responsible for the agreement that allows the encampment to stay at its Dearborn Street location, had both threatened to pull their support if Morrow was not reinstated. Though Good Shepherd Pastor Steve Olsen told Seattle Weekly late last week that he remained “hopeful and prayerful” that a last-minute resolution could be reached, as of Friday LIHI and Good Shepherd were both preparing to cut ties with the camp. Without the support of LIHI and Good Shepherd, the 35 campers currently hunkered down at Nickelsville on Dearborn street would have faced eviction.
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There are several worrisome things about this series of events.
► Blackmailing the Homeless
From Mr. Morrow’s resignation letter, it’s clear that he holds too much power over the people under his care. What he’s telling them, in essence, is that if they don’t let him be boss, he’s going to take his ball and go home. Or, in lieu of that, they can always BUY his ball from him by paying off the debts of the 501(c)3 organization that Morrow controls. In the Times piece, he claims that the Nickelsville 501(c)3 owes creditors $15,000. Presumably this is the amount the campers would have to cough up by Mr. Morrow’s February 5th deadline, if they wanted to stay on. Does it seem like a reasonable expectation that some three dozen homeless people would be able to scrape together fifteen thousand dollars in five days? Or does it seem more like blackmail?
Failing a payoff, the Nickelsville residents can always find themselves another non-profit organization to pay off the debt they owe to Morrow’s group. (Lots of luck with that.)
► Friends in High Places
Mr. Morrow’s leverage over the residents of Nickelsville goes well beyond his claim that the residents owe him money. As we see from the Times story, the residents would not have been allowed to stay, even if they had handed him $15,000 on the spot. There still would have been Ms. Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute to contend with. And also Reverend Olsen, whose church “controls” the land Nickelsville sits on. Olsen and Lee separately told the news media that, regardless of whatever other arrangements the homeless people at Nickelsville make, unless they reinstated Mr. Morrow as their boss, they would lose the patronage have to clear out, because they would no longer have the patronage of LIHI or the church.
As a result of my earlier research and tips from readers, I discovered a long-standing relationship between Mr. Morrow and Ms. Lee. Lee owes her six-figure-salary job to Morrow, since he’s a co-founder of the the organization she works for: the Low Income Housing Institute. See this story for an explanation of Mr. Morrow’s role.
Ms. Lee’s group controls tens of millions of dollars in government-subsidized housing properties in the Seattle area. The other two LIHI co-founders are Michael Reichert, director of Catholic Community Services (another non-profit whale), and Frank Chopp, Speaker of the House in the Washington State Legislature and an employee of Solid Ground (also a whale). All three of these heavy hitters Lee, Reichert, and Chopp are personal friends of Mr. Morrow’s. Chopp is particularly powerful. Between his job in the Legislature and his job at Solid Ground, Chopp controls the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in housing projects in Seattle.
These whales all have their connections at City Hall. So, when a rag-tag band of rebels up and decides to toss Mr. Morrow out of the camp, what are the odds of Morrow’s friends at City Hall intervening on their behalf. And what are the odds of them pulling back the curtain to see just how Mr. Morrow runs his business, do you think? In addition to their multi-million-dollar contracts with Morrow’s friends at LIHI and Solid Ground, the City of Seattle also has contracts with Morrow’s other non-profit, SHARE (Seattle Housing and Resource Effort). Staff at City Hall and in the City’s Human Services Department tell me that the City likes Morrow’s outfit because it keeps people off the street and provides homeless shelter beds to the City at rock-bottom rates. That is . . . when Morrow’s not putting people out on the street himself . . .
► The Myth of Self-management
According to the residents of Nickelsville, as quoted in the Times story, all they wanted was the right to manage their community as they saw fit, without being threatened:
Anthony Jenkins and Lisa Hooper, two current Nickelsville residents, said they voted against Morrow because he had been threatening to take away resources, such as portable toilets, over a disagreement. Remaining residents are in talks with a different church and are hoping for an opportunity to operate Nickelsville themselves, Jenkins said.
“We just want a chance,” said Hooper, sitting inside the encampment’s tent kitchen Friday. “We can do this effectively.”
Over the years, Mr. Morrow’s representatives have assured the neighborhoods and churches that host his encampments that Nickelsville is democratically run and self-managed. Morrow has given the same assurances to government officials, in his effort to get City funding for his organization, SHARE. Indeed we see the same lingo popping up here again, in the words of LIHI’s Sharon Lee, as she explained why she was pulling LIHI’s backing from the group:
“We have no confidence in the [renegade] residents right now,” Lee said. “They’re not following the rules of self-management and they also voted out Scott Morrow.”
But wait . . . isn’t “self-management” exactly what the Nickelsville renegades ARE demonstrating? They’re thinking (and voting) for themselves for a change. And their democratic self-managed judgment was to remove Mr. Morrow–who is not homeless and is not a resident of the camp himself—from his position of authority over them. Mr. Morrow acknowledged this in the opening lines of his own e-mail:
At Nickelsville’s Weekly Meeting Thursday it was Moved / Seconded / and Passed that those gathered had ‘No Confidence’ in me as their staff person.
Apparently Ms. Lee has a very odd idea of what constitutes self-management. Over the years, numerous complaints have been made against Morrow–both formally, to civil rights organizations and city officials, and informally to the media, including this correspondent–to the effect that Morrow runs his encampments with an iron fist, expelling people who don’t support his political causes or show up at City Hall on cue to ask for more money for Morrow’s organizations. Even without this latest little saga as evidence, anyone with any background in the workings of Nickelsville knows the “self-management” sham for what it is.
► Church-assisted evictions
The Seattle Times story references a 2011 Seattle law that allows “religious entities to host tent cities with no permit and no time limit.” The city’s law in turn conforms with a 2009 Washington Supreme Court decision mandating that cities could not impose “undue burdens” on faith-based organizations who were exercising their religious beliefs by hosting homeless camps. The court decision means that Washington cities cannot bar churches from hosting homeless camps outright, nor can they impose permitting requirements so onerous as to have the same effect as a ban. Cities can, if they desire, go a step further and exempt churches from specific provisions of the permitting laws that would apply to all other citizens. Or at least they can until someone tests the matter in court. In any case, the City of Seattle does give such exemptions, and Mr. Morrow and his partner churches take full advantage.
Although Reverend Olsen and his flock at Church of the Good Shepherd are “hosting” Nickelsville, it’s not clear how this is an exercise of anyone’s religious faith. The camp is not on church property and the Times article does not discuss any work that Reverend Olsen and Good Shepherd are otherwise doing to support the people living at Nickelsville. The portable toilets and other services are being paid for by someone else, perhaps LIHI or Mr. Morrow’s organization. The land that the camp sits on, though it is “controlled” by Good Shepherd (whatever that means), is owned by a private real estate company.
Indeed, from the Times article, it would appear that Good Shepherd’s only role with regard to Nickelsville is that of an enforcer for Mr. Morrow. When the residents voted Morrow out, Reverend Olsen immediately stepped in and informed them that if they didn’t bow to Morrow’s will, they’d be evicted.*
Does Reverend Olsen see throwing people out of a homeless camp as an expression of his Christian faith? Surely this kind of behavior is not what the founders intended by “free expression of religion.” Therefore, the City of Seattle’s exemption for “religious entities” should not apply.
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I will be pursuing this story further, seeking comment from Reverend Olsen and Seattle officials. I’m not a fan of homeless camps, self-managed or otherwise. But if they are to be tolerated under city law, then they must not be allowed to become tools by which the wealthy and powerful–the Sharon Lees, Scott Morrows, and Reverend Olsens of the world–can hold poor people down.
*Morrow using a church as enforcer is not something new; it’s part of a pattern. In this story from February of 2014, there was a confrontation at another one of the Nickelsville homeless franchises in Seattle. In that case, too, the residents decided they didn’t like Mr. Morrow telling them what to do, so they ousted him, and the host church threatened to pull the plug on then a day or two later. In that case, the camp disbanded and several dozen homeless people were returned to the street.