A tense meeting at the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC)


Rhoda Ashley Morrow, one of the founding members of HIP, remembers a tense meeting at DESC that had HIP taking up serving breakfasts at the shelter “every day of the year”! This story is part of a series where we are looking back at our ten-year history since the founding of Hunger Intervention Program (HIP) in 2008. This year, we are celebrating ten years of serving and building community.

Check out more Ten-Year Anniversary stories here.

The scene is a metal lunch table in a windowless room far below the entrance to the Downtown Emergency Services Center shelter in downtown Seattle.  Linda Berger is sitting across from me with Daniel Malone, assistant director of DESC.  We are there on this warm summer day in 2007 to discuss the sidewalk feeding “problem” with the DESC Director, Bill Hobson.  I look to my left at Bill’s desk, which sports a framed photo of a young girl with a soccer ball.  This humanizing touch in an otherwise cold and unwelcoming space calms my nerves as we face this scion of homeless services.  Bill Hobson has the reputation of being opinionated, unswerving, and dominating in his advocacy for homelessness.  And Bill Hobson is ready to give two “HIP” ladies a piece of his mind.

HIP had been serving bagged lunches or lunch components at Third and Yesler several times a week for months. Operation Sack Lunch (OSL) had suspended outdoor feeding and a nearby café run for and by homeless people had closed.  High rise construction had eliminated a “tolerated” food dispensing station north of the DESC.  HIP pulled out all its human resource stops to go from providing sandwich-making services for OSL to making, transporting, and dispensing safe lunches on the gritty sidewalk near the DESC.   HIP’s mission was to “serve meals without precondition in a way that preserves dignity.” Bill Hobson wanted this practice stopped, and stopped immediately.  He complained of litter and reported shelter disruption from homeless clients sneaking in HIP meals to friends inside.  He was convinced that the HIP lunch line was a magnet for drug dealers. We got quite an earful.

Linda and I had heard all this, and more, from city officials, police officers, and numerous DESC staff members.   Bill Hobson is well known for his claim that the problem is “too much food.”  Indeed, we are told that clients accepted to the shelter for the night are given a FareStart hot meal at 5PM.   After discussing how DESC clients find (or fail to find) food the rest of the day, Linda points out that HIP would be happy to serve a meal inside the shelter.

Bill says “You can serve a breakfast but you have to commit to doing so every day of the year. Can you do that?”

HIP ladies: “YES.”

The normally bellicose Bill Hobson falls silent.

Postscript:  After gearing up and serving breakfast at DESC for over 500 consecutive days, the shelter provided me with a vast spreadsheet that categorized incidents at the shelter.  A statistician friend helped me code hundreds of events to compare day-with-breakfast events against those from the matching day of the year prior to breakfast service.  There were fewer medic calls in the morning to afternoon hours on days “with breakfast.”  The difference reached statistical significance for the category of medic calls for diabetic seizures and showed a trend toward significance for police calls for violence.  This little study led to several meetings with City officials who agreed to the cost effectiveness of a breakfast service.  HIP then shifted to train DESC how to maintain a City-funded breakfast service, thus meeting Linda’s and my informal mission to “put ourselves out of business.”

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