June 4, 2016
Today I got a nice surprise in my mailbox. It’s a letter from someone who claims to represent some two dozen Scott Morrow critics: disaffected homeless campers, SHARE insiders, volunteers. The letter is being circulated ahead of today’s “Power Lunch” planning meeting, to be held at one of SHARE’s two direct action protest camps located at the King County Administration Building in downtown Seattle. The camps were established when SHARE closed 15 indoor homeless shelters to protest recent funding cuts from King County and Seattle human services departments. According to SHARE there are 200 people staying there.
[You can also see the letter here.]
I have not had time to authenticate this letter and I do not vouch for any specific claim it makes. With those caveats, I’ve decided to publish it anyway, on the theory that it may be timely and on the assumption that it represents at least one SHARE insider’s true feelings.
The letter opens by noting SHARE’s good work, explaining that SHARE is nearly broke, and calling for a renegotiation of agreements between SHARE and the various churches that donate/lease shelter space to it. (Things get fuzzy here, since there are no written contracts between SHARE and its host churches and since SHARE does not reveal how much it pays the churches out of what it gets from the City to run the shelter program. Moreover, SHARE’s self-stated claim to be broke is a matter of debate, since their books are essentially closed and since for the past 8 years they’ve been using a make-believe accountant.)
The letter goes on to call for the removal of Scott Morrow, de facto head of the SHARE organization. The author accuses Morrow of misappropriating funds, lying to the SHARE community, and ordering the indoor shelter residents out on a protest against their will. For the organization to survive, they argue, Morrow’s got to go.
These arguments echo those I’ve heard from SHARE critics many times over the years. Claims that Morrow is a dictator, that he acts against SHARE’s best interests, that he’s got to leave in order for SHARE to survive, and so on. In that sense the letter seems authentic. Moreover, the author is offering at least some evidence that can be examined. The claim that shelter residents did not want to join the protest is one we can verify, for example, if people would step forward with their testimony about that. The challenge here has always been that witnesses are afraid to step forward with their stories for fear of retaliation by Morrow and his lieutenants. And that’s understandable. If you owe your job to this guy (and many potential witnesses do) you’re naturally not going to be inclined to rat him out. And if you’re staying in a SHARE-run shelter or camp, and they’ve got the power to blacklist you from any of dozen places around the county, you have to think twice before speaking out.
Testimony or no testimony, I hope the letter is real and that it contributes to dethroning Mr. Morrow. But knowing what I know about SHARE I have to also consider that the letter might be part of plan to stage-manage Morrow’s exit in such a way that he could appear to be gone while actually staying in charge. Such a thing has happened before. Morrow stepped down from his official duties at SHARE in 2008, around the time the first Nickelsville protest encampment was created. (Note: At that time a consent decree was in force between Seattle and SHARE stipulating that SHARE could have only one homeless camp within the Seattle city limits, and Nickelsville would’ve constituted SHARE’s second camp.) He then began styling himself as an “unpaid consultant” who was there in an advisory capacity only and had no power over the SHARE board or SHARE shelter clients. Morrow’s name has since vanished from all the official documents, and though he’s been at nearly every city or county council meeting dealing with homelessness, he has remained largely in the shadows. Is it not conceivable that he could step back even further into the darkness while keeping the reins firmly in hand?
The Man Who Wouldn’t Leave
Morrow has seemed to leave the stage before, only to reappear suddenly at a moment of crisis. In January 2015, he appeared to have resigned his position as boss of the Nickelsville Dearborn homeless camp. When he was voted out by a majority of campers he tendered a humble resignation letter. But in the same letter was an implicit threat that the camp would be closed unless another non-profit would “step in to assume the camp’s assets and liabilities.” Which is a nice way of saying: Pay me off or clear out. Morrow’s confederates were less delicate. They told the rebel campers that they’d have to take Morrow back, period. And (surprise) they did. [Read more here.]
There have been other coups through the years, and each time the pattern’s the same. In 2012, he was voted out a camp in Kirkland. In 2013, he was briefly evicted from a camp in the Highland Park neighborhood. He was booted from the camp on Cherry Street in downtown Seattle in 2014, and in 2016 he was voted out of the Dearborn Street camp – for the second time. With one exception (the Kirkland camp split into two sub-camps) every time Morrow’s been ousted, he’s either managed to strong-arm his way back in or he has shut down the whole camp, with the connivance of the property owner and host church. This should give you an idea of the man’s staying power.
Morrow has never been particularly attached to any one of his camps, and that could be why he’s willing to close a camp down if he can’t bring it to heel. But the same cannot be said of SHARE. SHARE is Morrow’s baby, his creation.* And his cash cow. Without SHARE he’s got no rai·son d’ê·tre. Given how hard he fights to stay on top at the camps, how much harder is he likely to fight to stay on at SHARE? Food for thought.
Best Case Scenario
Though I support the rebels, frankly, I have doubts about the SHARE model of managing homelessness. I wonder whether SHARE really can be saved. In the happy event that Scott Morrow is knocked off his perch, there will still be the problem of running the organization. Who will take the reins when Morrow’s gone and how they will manage without him? This man has spent decades shaping the organization, insinuating his thoughts into into every fold of its collective brain, imposing his will on every joint and sinew of its body. He’s got his people just where he wants them, and he’s trained them not to think for themselves but to rely on him for direction. So even if SHARE staff did rise up and throw him off, that doesn’t mean they can run the organization by themselves. Still, I’m willing to cut them a break – if they show a good faith commitment to changing their ways. For starters, that will mean opening the books to public view and opening the camps and shelters to real democratic self-management. No more threats of mass eviction for not playing the boss man’s game. No more banishing homeless folks for talking to reporters or asking church hosts for help. And no more kangaroo courts. The disciplinary process for SHARE shelters and camps must be turned over to a neutral organization whose operations are public.
You want democracy for homeless people? Well . . . this is what democracy looks like.
Essay by David Preston
*SHARE was actually founded by Morrow’s mother Shirley. Rumors abound as to how and why Scott took the reins, but I won’t entertain them here.