The storied legacy of homeless activist and organizer Scott Morrow | Jun 15-21, 2022

    Since his recent passing, the impact of the 'godfather of tiny home villages' has been continued by those who worked alongside Morrow  </p><div>
    <p>A village of pink tents lined up side-by-side appeared near Lake City's Duwamish waterway in 2008. In the center, advertising the arriving people experiencing homelessness and volunteers, one would find a gray-bearded man wearing circular eyeglasses.  His name was Scott Morrow. 

Morrow, who has quite the colorful history in Seattle as an organizer and advocate for homeless people, died of pancreatic cancer on April 19 at age 64, but his trailblazing work for the city’s homeless population will leave a lasting impact. As the founder of SHARE/WHEEL — short for Seattle Housing and Resource Effort and Women’s Housing, Equality, and Enhancement League — Morrow spearheaded community-organized and self-managed tent cities.

When SHARE was founded in 1990, Seattle was not yet familiar with these homeless encampments run entirely by residents. Morrow began alone at first, handing out coffee to individuals taking refuge on the streets downtown. Before long, he formed an organization that transformed municipal land into quasi-towns, all equipped with kitchens, sleeping spaces and designated roles for residents to keep the places running.

Although Morrow has passed, his legacy is illustrated — the good, the great and the controversial — by the people he both served and worked closely with. Understanding Morrow is also understanding his fiery passion for the potential of homeless people; it would not suffice to say Morrow was only a man of basic acts of charity.

SHARE/WHEEL and Nickelsville

The organization’s first tent city was established on Nov. 24, 1990, with the goal of helping displaced displaced homeless people stay together and safe, according to SHARE/WHEEL’s website. Tent cities typically did not stay in one location longer than 90 days, and they served about 100 residents.

Some of Morrow’s most notable work in the realm of tent cities is the inception of the fittingly named Nickelsville encampments. In response to former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’ sweeping of homeless encampments across the city, Morrow, along with others involved with SHARE/WHEEL, started setting up distinctive pink tents on unused public land as an act of protest. They would move the camp or stay put, even if it meant mass arrests would occur.

A rigid organizing style

Because of his commitment to his cause, Morrow was willing to halt, or even dismantle, any progress if there was misalignment with his perceived vision of homeless empowerment.

This mission of homeless capabilities entailed breaking down both “attitudinal and legal barriers to Tent Cities,” according to SHARE/WHEEL’s website, and enabling homeless individuals to begin self-managing with the resources provided in the encampments.

This all-in model did not always receive universal support, even from colleagues.

Timothy Harris, the founding director of Real Change, was involved with Morrow even before the escalation of the Nickels’ administration sweeps. He played a role in the constant relocation of the site.

“That was a really emotional fight we were in,” Harris said.

Nickelsville, putting a direct target on the city’s mayoral administration, placed its encampment strategically, able to quickly evacuate before getting shut down.

“He was really good at playing cat and mouse. He would set up an encampment on municipal land or something like that,” Harris said. “When they would sweep through an encampment, there was always somewhere else.”

Following the height of the Nickels encampment sweeps, Harris continued to work with Morrow into Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s administration. During this period, SHARE/WHEEL, in conjunction with Harris, advocated for legislation that would authorize certain homeless encampments.

In addition to Morrow’s and SHARE’s persistence, the high profile nature of the Nickelsville encampment created public pressure on the McGinn administration to make changes.

“Nickelsville was the most highly visible encampment and had enormous public support,” Harris said. “People were really rooting for Nickelsville, and Nickelsville changed the way encampments worked. It was community-driven and rooted in personal stories.”

After progress had been made and all signs pointed to an end to the waves of sweeps, Morrow and others within his organization turned their backs on the city legislation due to a provision that would not allow authorized encampments in residentially zoned areas, according to Harris.

“They testedified against the legislation, and at that point I just threw up my hands,” Harris said. “It became more divisive than it should have been, and we lost by a vote.”

This action, although shocking to Harris and others, was reminiscent of Morrow’s distinct style of leadership. If he did not get exactly what aligned with his plan, he was willing to sacrifice everything.

Others who had worked with Morrow have echoed the same sentiment in different ways: Morrow was hard-nosed and would fight for what he perceived was the best way to proceed for his organization — nothing less.

“It was what felt like betrayal at that point, but it kind of went to the heart of the potential model, which I had a really hard time with,” Harris said. “The organization took a strict party line that was basically determined by Scott. And if you disagreed with that, the disagreement was not tolerated.”

Rick Reynolds, the director of Operation Nightwatch, an organization made up of ministers from various churches who go out to the streets to provide food, shelter and other resources to homeless individuals, was also familiar with Morrow’s distinct leadership style.

Reynolds and Morrow were first introduced when SHARE was setting up an encampment underneath one of the freeway off-ramps more than 20 years ago, according to Reynolds. Reynolds was driving the Nightwatch “beater van” and delivered SHARE camping equipment.

“He was like a bulldog. He didn’t let go of stuff. He was a hard fighter for justice,” Reynolds said.

Anitra Freeman has been with SHARE/WHEEL since the 1990s. Not only has she worked closely with Morrow, but also she herself was homeless at one point. After her initial involvement as a tent city resident, she eventually was elected to the board of directors.

“Everyone there has an equal voice and an equal vote and directs the course of the administration,” Freeman said.

Freeman sees Morrow’s reputation as a representation of his sheer dedication to the cause of alleviating homelessness in Seattle.

“Scott was passionate, and sometimes passionate looks angry,” Freeman said. “He would yell about things he cared about. It took a lot to see past that, and some people never did.” Since stepping into her role on the board of SHARE, Freeman has sympathized with the obstacles Morrow faced being a leader.

“I know how hard it is. Especially if you’re dealing with a project that you care very much about. How hard it is to have faith in other people to do things for themselves,” Freeman said.

Morrow’s driving creed was promoting homeless potential over what he saw as infantilizing shelter services. This well-intentioned and uncompromising style of leadership found critics among the people he served along with his close colleagues.

“People were usually a lot more fond of the people who served them a meal and gave them a hug rather than the person who would say, ‘There’s the stove and there’s the soup. You cook enough for everybody, you can all eat,” Freeman said.

Humble roots

Although his leadership within SHARE/WHEEL catapulted him to the pinnacle of Seattle politics, Morrow never lost touch with the simple acts of service that got him started.

One of the most commonly exchanged anecdotes of Morrow is his commitment to connection-building he fostered through his handing out morning coffee to those living on the streets.

Reynolds recalled a homelessness-related protest that occurred at a King County administration building.

“I’m walking through the camp and it’s about 10 o’clock at night, and I look and there’s Scott, dead asleep on the plaza with all of the homeless people. I realized the dude’s gotta go to sleep cause he’s getting up at 5:30 am to go pass out coffee,” Reynolds said.

Freeman, too, recalled Morrow’s dedication to even the simplest acts of service.

“Those times at morning coffee, I saw him more relaxed and enjoying himself than any other time. He was always on the go except at morning coffee.

“He would just get a kick back and chat with people, read the paper, look at Facebook,” Freeman chuckled.

A lasting impact

Morrow left a lasting mark on Seattle’s way of speaking about and viewing the homeless population. He made it so attitudes surrounding the capabilities of homeless people shifted. He made each encampment a community to thrive in rather than a temporary place of refuge. Ultimately, he empowered homeless individuals to manage their own communities, according to Harris.

“The city’s a better place for him having been here,” Reynolds said. “I think there were a lot of people that were associated with SHARE that found their voice and discovered that they mattered on the terms of political discussion, and things like that. I don’t think that would have happened without Scott.”

His work, to those who have been alongside him for years, goes beyond just the physical encampments he built.

“I think the impact on individuals is harder to measure,” Reynolds said. “You’ve got to look at it through a different lens. I think those intangible impacts are probably more substantial over time.”

Freeman, Reynolds and Harris, although all had worked with Morrow on different projects and had varying experiences with him, would likely agree that he was intensely committed to his cause and the residents.

“SHARE was not a ministry of serving the poor, but a ministry of awakening the poor,” Freeman said. “Helping poor people serve each other and themselves.”

Lacey Robertson is a contributing writer for Real Change.

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