AS HEAD OF the Downtown Emergency Service Center, one of the city's largest nonprofits serving the homeless, Bill Hobson has a funny way of talking about his work. "We have a grossly ugly shelter," he asserts almost aggressively in his Southern twang. He also admits without prompting that drug use goes on there. "Any operator who tells you there's no drug use in the shelter is either a liar or a fool." Finally, he condemns the place as a "moral atrocity" for the way it treats people—"putting mats on the goddamn floor," a "filthy" floor at that.
If even DESC's boss feels that way, why is the Seattle Housing Authority thinking of turning over its most troubled property, the Morrison Hotel, to Hobson's organization? Some Morrison residents would like to know, fearing the move would make matters even worse at a facility long known for crime, squalor, and a total absence of services for the largely mentally ill and chemically addicted people who live there. Many homeless advocates, however, are jubilant because, for all the ugliness at its shelter, DESC is hailed as a case study in how to do things right with the most difficult clientele there is.
"DESC has proven itself to be extremely capable," says John Fox, head of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. Of the shelter, Tim Harris, executive director of the homeless advocacy organization Real Change, says this: "Let's face it, the DESC [shelter] is a hellhole; anyone who spends 10 minutes there knows that. But it's a hellhole that saves lives."
DESC occupies a prime position, perhaps the prime position, in the map of local misery. Its offices and shelter are housed in the same six-story brick building that contains the Morrison, on a drug-ridden patch of Third Avenue that sits ironically across from the county courthouse. It is a shelter of last resort in the same way that the Morrison is a permanent residence of last resort, housing folks with mental illnesses and drug addictions that other do-gooding organizations refuse to take. In a year, the 24-hour shelter sees some 9,000 people. In a single day, up to 600 people drop in; about a third as many spend the night.
The blunt-spoken Hobson landed at the shelter in the mid '80s with an unlikely pedigree. He had been chair of the political science department at the University of Puget Sound until the shock of a divorce propelled him to change everything about his life. First, he bought a Volkswagen bus and drove to Nicaragua, where he stayed for a year. Then he came back and tried his hand at social service work in a $5-an-hour job at the shelter. It was an eye-opening experience for an old-style lefty.
"I thought in my arrogant way that homelessness was all the product of mean old capitalism," recalls the bearded 61-year-old dressed in jeans one day in his small office. "I haven't divested of that notion, but I learned that there are individual reasons." He likes to cite the example of one 21-year-old woman who turned up at the shelter. "She was a high school dropout. She had four kids who had all been taken by CPS [Child Protective Services]. She had a bipolar disorder, she was addicted to cocaine, she was HIV positive, and she was pregnant."
Accordingly, Hobson says he and the organization came to realize that such homeless people don't just need a roof over their heads—they need intensive social services to deal with the problems that have made them fail at every housing program they've tried. DESC has made limited use of this observation at the shelter, given its transient nature and volume of inhabitants, although counselors and medical staff do work there. But over time, as Hobson rose through the DESC ranks, the organization developed new programs. In addition to the shelter, DESC now runs a drop-in center and an outreach program for the mentally ill, both of which connect their clients to social services. More pertinent to the Morrison, DESC also runs three long-term housing programs staffed with full-time counselors—the Union Hotel, the Lyon Building, and Kerner-Scott House—and it just won a federal grant to create a fourth.
It is a point of pride for DESC that these programs have not only counselors on staff but also managers who are social workers or the equivalent. That way, DESC says, the people in charge are just as concerned with whether residents, say, take their meds as whether they are paying the rent on time. For that matter, all staff are supposed to be concerned with both types of problems.
IF DESC's SHELTER is undeniably and perhaps inevitably dirty and depressing, its long-term housing is anything but. Just a block from the shelter on Third, the Lyon Building is a showpiece, a recently renovated turn-of-the-century gem with spotless marble floors and a brightly painted common room that is an oasis of tranquility. At the less glamorous but still tidy Union Hotel at Third and Washington Street in Pioneer Square, staff serve breakfast five days a week, dinner once a week, and late-night pizza every other week. On a recent day, the facility's women's group was preparing to take a walk along the waterfront, and bingo was scheduled for later in the afternoon.
A year ago, before the possibility of DESC's taking over the Morrison ever surfaced, social service workers held up DESC's facilities as examples of everything the Morrison was not. At that time the Housing Authority's 205-unit facility had no counselors and no activities, cleanliness was iffy, and security was so lax that reports of sexual assaults, drug dealing, and other criminal activities emerged. Some homeless people preferred to sleep on the street rather than stay there.
Times, however, have changed, which is why some Morrison residents are now less than thrilled by the possible transfer of management. That development still isn't certain. A task force that issued a report recommending a DESC takeover was scheduled to meet with the Housing Authority's board of commissioners last week. The board will decide whether to follow the recommendation, a decision that will likely be influenced by whether the city antes up with funds to compensate the Housing Authority and boost the Morrison's budget. But the deal seems probable given that the Housing Authority's No. 2 man, Al Levine, cochaired the task force making the recommendation.
In response, the Housing Authority received a petition signed by 125 residents (more than half of the Morrison's inhabitants) in opposition. Resident Ellen Hamilton originated the petition after failing to get her view across as the only resident member of the task force. "They're going on what the building was; they haven't paid attention to what's happened since Jake LeBlanc came here 10 months ago," she says.
LeBlanc is the energetic property manager installed by the Housing Authority after years of resident and community complaints. Well-respected by outside observers as well as residents, he is exactly the kind of social worker type that DESC believes in hiring for the job. He has previously run an array of housing programs and other services for the needy, last working for the Plymouth Housing Group. At the Morrison, he has cleaned up the building, evicted alleged drug dealers and other predators, and looked for security personnel who are strong in people skills. Simultaneously, the Housing Authority contracted with the Community Psychiatric Clinic to provide several on-site counselors, who hold Friday night dinners among other duties.
"The building is what it should be, finally," says Hamilton, an unusually well-dressed and articulate resident who despite her seeming functionality has lived at the Morrison for 15 years. "And now they want to implode it."
Adding to the fears of Hamilton and other residents is what they know about DESC. Despite its model long-term housing programs and other services, DESC is to them tantamount to the shelter that is only a doorway away. Morrison residents see the chaotic flood of shelter inhabitants going in and out every day. Some at the Morrison have spent time at the shelter themselves. They see the shelter as a bad situation, rather than DESC making the best of a bad situation. It doesn't give them confidence in DESC's management. "We do not want the shelter running our building," Hamilton says.
Such concerns don't undermine the belief by homeless advocates that DESC should take over. They say the Housing Authority can't be trusted to maintain order at the Morrison when the pressure is off. Nevertheless, DESC obviously has some trust-building of its own to do with Morrison residents. It needs to show them that the agency is more than just "a grossly ugly shelter."