"I WAS PETRIFIED of being there. I never cried so much." A young disabled woman is speaking about several months she spent last year at the Seattle Housing Authority's Morrison Hotel, not really a hotel but a downtown apartment building that serves as a place of last resort for the homeless or disabled or both. "People were doing all these drugs everywhere. I've never saw so much drugs in one place." The woman, who can talk and walk only with great difficulty and prefers to remain anonymous for this article, also remembers creepy men in elevators making intimidating comments whenever a woman stepped on. The place scared her so much that she occasionally chose to sleep on the street rather than spend the night in her room.
She's not alone. "All my clients say they'd rather be homeless than go to the Morrison," says Kate Miller, a case manager for drug- and alcohol-addicted clients at Evergreen Treatment Services. "And I work with some pretty tough guys."
In the view of Miller and a host of social service providers, the Morrison has descended into a state of chaos, becoming a place where not only drug dealing but sexual assaults have been allowed to go on unchecked despite repeated appeals to the Housing Authority over a period of years. "This place is out of control," says Sinan Demirel, a homeless advocate who runs a University District feeding program known as the Friday Feast. "I hear more complaints and expressions of fear and terror about the Morrison than I do about every other housing and shelter put together."
Since an ad hoc group called the Coalition to Save the Morrison started putting pressure on the Housing Authority and the city, things at the Morrison are changing—but neither as thoroughly nor as quickly as some would like. Last week, the Housing Authority revealed that it had decided to hire only half as many new security staffers as critics believe are necessary.
The Morrison is a strange building on a strange block. It sits across the street from the King County Courthouse, on Third Avenue between Yesler and James, an area that despite the constant presence of hundreds of law enforcement personnel manages to be one of the busiest drug markets in the city. Police, who say they are doing the best they can, believe that dealers come to prey on vulnerable addicts who stay not only at the 210-unit Morrison but at a shelter located within the same sprawling brick five-story building. Run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, the shelter sees between 400 and 600 people a day. The foot traffic on the block is incredible. For that reason, and because the shelter shares a second-floor door with the Morrison that is often jammed open, close supervision is necessary to determine who is and isn't supposed to be in the apartment building.
Built around the turn of the century, the Morrison is actually a beautiful old building. Its former glory can be seen in the dark wood that lines its hallways and in a space formerly known as the China Room, where dragons and kings peer down from gold-painted walls.
Since the Housing Authority bought the building in the mid-'70s at the urging of homeless advocacy groups, this place of faded splendor has welcomed a population that had nowhere else to go. "For many, many years, the Morrison was the only place where we could get these folks housed," says Bill Hobson, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center. He calls the Morrison's clientele the "sickest of the sickest," people with multiple problems like chemical addictions, AIDS, and mental health illnesses.
But a room is all these tenants get, which isn't, given their condition, enough. Critics say that those who aren't intimidated by shady goings-on are simply neglected by a skeleton staff that includes a manager who works only half-time and no social service workers. The agencies that refer clients there often don't have the staff to provide adequate follow-up care either. "It's kind of become a dumping ground," says Mary Clausnitzer, another case manager at Evergreen Treatment Services. Left to themselves, tenants don't do very well. Clausnitzer has gone to the Morrison to do what she calls "dig-outs," literally digging people out of the debris they have let themselves become surrounded by. "There was this one guy who had casserole dishes stacked in his tub up to his ceiling," Clausnitzer recalls.
THINGS WERE NOT always this bad. Clausnitzer used to work at the Morrison as an employee of the Archdiocesean Housing Authority, which referred tenants to social services and tried to brighten their lives along the way by serving doughnuts and coffee each morning and starting a resident-run caf鮠But according to Clausnitzer, the Archdiocese was so unhappy over lax security and management that it decided to leave. "The thing that pushed us over the edge were the number of women reporting assaults and the lack of response," Clausnitzer says. In leaving, she says, "We thought we could bring about change. But we didn't. Nothing happened." The Housing Authority didn't even hire replacement social service staff. That was two whole years ago.
Last fall, however, Clausnitzer, several dozen other social service providers, and the Seattle Displacement Coalition formed the Coalition to Save the Morrison, a group that has been complaining loudly and often. To some extent, it's working. City Council housing chair Peter Steinbrueck is planning a tour of the Morrison and says he is exploring the possibility of helping out with city funds. More importantly, the Housing Authority has gotten the message. "It just can't go on like it's been going on," says Marie Cook, a Housing Authority commissioner who spent a disturbing two days and nights at the Morrison over last Thanksgiving weekend.
Early this month, the agency chose an as yet unnamed contractor to provide two social service workers at the building beginning in March. It's not as many as critics had hoped, and the funding for those positions runs out in a year. But it's a start. The Housing Authority is also looking into the possibility of contracting out management of the Morrison to an agency that specializes in serving a special needs population, a move that thrills observers who have concluded that the Housing Authority doesn't know how to run a building like this.
Most crucially of all, the Housing Authority is accepting applications for new in-house security staff to replace workers provided by an outside agency that critics feel have been at best useless and at worst dangerous. The Coalition to Save the Morrison says that three women have independently accused employees of Burns International Security of sexual assault. The Housing Authority says it has received details on only one case, in which police determined that the assault really happened at a different location several years ago.
When I talk to the alleged victim—the disabled woman who used to shun the Morrison for the street—she does seem confused about dates and places. But in the end, she contends that she was assaulted twice by the guard, once at the Morrison and once at another building where he used to work.
Whatever the truth of those allegations, Burns is on the way out. But the Housing Authority is only willing to go so far. It has decided to hire five new security staffers: That is precisely half as many as needed to have two people at the front desk at all times—something the Coalition to Save the Morrison desperately wants—so someone will still be on hand when one person has to step away to go to the bathroom or deal with a problem.
Housing Authority spokesperson Virginia Felton points out that an off-duty officer will help out when available. More generally, she contends that the agency is doing what it can with limited resources. Unlike other Housing Authority buildings, she says, the Morrison does not receive federal subsidies. Nor, she says, does it receive the kind of public and private grants that go to other buildings with which it is often compared—the Lyons, for instance, which is run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center and boasts four social service workers for a population less than a third the size of the Morrison's. Nevertheless, Felton says the Housing Authority is scrambling for new funds to put into the Morrison.
The situation at the Morrison has already improved, judging by a recent tour with social service workers Clausnitzer and Miller. The front door is locked and both a Burns employee and an off-duty officer are manning the front office. The hallways are quiet and relatively clean. "I think it's amazing," Clausnitzer says.
Yet, given the Housing Authority's track record at the Morrison, she and others are determined to keep the agency's feet to the fire. They may need to. When I return to the building a couple of hours later, the off-duty officer is gone and the front door is propped open.