It's Morning at the Morrison

Has a $27 million renovation tamed one of the city's worst hellholes?

When case manager Nykia Johnson talked recently with some of her homeless clients about the possibility of moving into the Morrison Hotel, their first response was, "No way." Johnson, of the nonprofit addiction- treatment Evergreen Treatment Services, says they remembered the old Morrison, the subsidized apartment facility run by the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) that some homeless people considered more dangerous than the streets. During the 1990s, residents told stories of sexual assaults and rampant drug dealing at the 200-unit building, ironically located across from the King County Courthouse on Third Avenue. Deputy Chief of Police Clark Kimerer says that at one time, the Morrison was probably the number one location in the city for repeat police calls.

Johnson's homeless clients nevertheless agreed to take a look at today's Morrison and came back with a different impression. "They were really impressed," she says. Four years ago, after a crescendo of complaints from activists and social service providers, SHA turned the building over to the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), a veteran nonprofit organization that has long run a shelter in the building and which manages an array of buildings serving homeless individuals with the toughest problems, mainly chronic addiction and severe mental illness. DESC launched a $27 million renovation of the entire building, including the shelter, while residents continued to live there. It was paid for mostly with city, state, and federal funds. The results were on display early last month in a ribbon-cutting ceremony that drew Gov. Christine Gregoire, who called it "an integrated part of our 10-year plan to end homelessness and a shining example for the rest of the country." The event was mostly overlooked by the press, which reserved its coverage for DESC's other big event last month, the opening of a controversial "wet" house for chronic inebriates known as 1811 Eastlake that allows residents to drink in the facility. Yet the turnaround of the Morrison, if real, would be even more remarkable. Has DESC really tamed one of the city's worst hellholes in just a few years?

Certainly, the street life around the Morrison remains problematic. "It gets very bad in that area," says Lt. Jim Fitzgerald, afternoon watch commander for the police department's West Precinct. He says drug dealing and public drinking is rife in the area bordered by Fourth and Second avenues and Cherry and South Washington streets. But that activity largely seems to stay on the outside. Inside the Morrison, according to Deputy Chief Kimerer, who also chairs DESC's board of directors, police are getting fewer calls, and for less severe incidents, than in the past. Johnson says of her clients now living there, "They feel safer."

Henry, a resident who has lived in the Morrison for 20 years, and who wishes to be known by his first name only, agrees. "Now, it's like a more calmer state," he says. "The difference is they have more staff here."

DESC brought a team of 17 into the Morrison, including some of its best people, according to Executive Director Bill Hobson. Whereas SHA at times had only one person working security at the front desk, DESC has "no fewer than two people 24/7," Hobson says. Building on research that shows that homeless people often need not just housing but a range of services to help them stay off the streets, the Morrison team now also includes five clinical staffers who draw up service plans for each resident. Some services are available on-site. A DESC psychiatrist, for instance, makes periodic visits to the building. DESC provides daily breakfast and lunch for residents as well. Shelby Osborne, a DESC project manager who worked at the Morrison under both its current management and the SHA, says that in days past, the building "was treated more like an apartment complex. Now it's more like a program."

DESC also had a head start getting to know Morrison residents. About 90 percent of them had at one time stayed at the organization's shelter in the building, and were consequently listed in a DESC database. The sizable staff DESC brought into the Morrison enabled the organization to learn more about residents, in a way that SHA apparently never did. Consequently, DESC determined not only which residents needed what, but also which residents it felt were too destructive to stay in the building. The organization evicted about a dozen residents. Physically, the Morrison has changed as well. As John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition ventures, it better have, considering the amount of money that was spent on it. Twenty-seven million dollars is a lot for one project. It's almost a third of the amount to be allocated over seven years in the city of Seattle's last housing levy. The funds brought back some of the glory of the turn-of-the-century building, which used to serve as a premier hotel and social club. Lustrous mahogany and oak paneling has been restored and is on display in a ground-floor community room. Unfortunately, though, DESC says it could not save the building's stunning murals from that time, a big loss. Individual apartments remain tiny. But they now come equipped with stoves, furniture, and new bathrooms, which include, for the first time, bathtubs. The adjacent shelter now boasts actual beds; the 200 people who passed through every night used to sleep on floor mats. And the building's structure has had an overhaul.

Fox wonders whether too much money was spent on the Morrison. "Maybe it's justified, but the cost per individual unit just seems stratospheric," he says. Yet if DESC continues to serve an extremely difficult population on an extremely difficult block and still maintain a semblance of calm, it might turn out to be well worth it.

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