LONGVIEW — Frank Morrison’s 28-year-old daughter Mariah died of a drug overdose last month.
Her struggles were part of Morrison’s inspiration to help people recover from addiction and mental health issues, as well as secure housing, through Longview shelters, a local behavioral health agency, and now a youth shelter his team is constructing on 12th Avenue.
Mariah’s death is also partially the reason Cowlitz County Commissioner Arne Mortensen doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Morrison’s plan to shelter and provide job training for homeless local youth.
As the commissioner said last week during a county workshop to Morrison: “You couldn’t even save your own daughter …”
The county commissioners have yet to vote on whether to fund the requested $2.5 million for Community House’s youth shelter on 12th Avenue. Morrison said construction of the facility is stalled as he awaits mid-October reimbursements from a state grant and mulls over Mortensen’s words.
“Saying something like that is one of the worst things you can say to a grieving parent,” Morrison said in an interview.
What are the plans?
Morrison brought up his daughter at the Sept. 20 meeting to explain the difficulty of getting people in addiction off drugs.
Since then, he has buried Mariah, and Mortensen said he has received “a handful of nasty and accusatory emails” about his comment about her death.
The county commissioner explained his reasoning for the remark in an email to The Daily News.
Mortensen wrote he “was very sad, for the reasons everyone can imagine,” to hear of Mariah’s passing but also angry over “our inability to be rational about drug policy” and the “well-meaning folks,” who are part of the problem of maintaining the status quo.
However, Morrison’s plan is not just more of the same, he said; no one else in the county offers shelter for unaccompanied youth.
Homeless families can stay at Community House or Family Promise of Cowlitz County, but neither program houses unaccompanied minors who don’t live with their parents or legal guardian.
Morrison is building a 24-room overnight youth shelter because Community House and its sister agency CORE Health, a behavioral health organization, report seeing an increase in unaccompanied minors with nowhere to go.
He is asking the county to cover money to help purchase and renovate the building between Community House on Broadway and Mackin’s Longview Auto Body on 12th Avenue.
Half of the youth shelter rooms would house girls and the other boys, ages 13 to 17. The facility could house up to 48 kids, only from Cowlitz County.
The shelter would include a restaurant where youth shelter residents could work to gain employment skills, as well as earn money and save up for their own place, Morrison said. The restaurant would be located where The Carriage Restaurant & Lounge is today and food would be sold for pick up or delivery, not dine in.
Morrison estimates it would cost $150,000 to operate the shelter, which he said Community House could do without government money.
Why no vote yet?
Morrison gave an update about the shelter’s construction at the Sept. 20 meeting, reiterating they still need the $2.5 million officially requested in April.
Mortensen and Commissioner Rick Dahl did not vote that day on whether to fund the youth shelter, and Commissioner Dennis Weber was absent.
Dahl said he wanted more time to think about what to do with the county’s excess of roughly $2 million of document recording fee revenue because there are other proposals to combat homelessness that also interest him.
In April, commissioners didn’t vote on whether to OK the funds because they wanted to see how far a newly awarded state grant of $5.3 million would go once construction of the youth shelter started.
Morrison said a loan has been approved for the purchase of the site, and the roof replacement is almost complete.
Morrison first brought up the idea of the county funding the youth shelter in January. Instead of voting on the youth shelter funds then, the county decided to issue a formal request for proposals for other local projects to help shelter homeless youth. This formal request process is typically used to allocate the requested document recording fees, which are expenses added to local liens and home purchases by the state to combat county homelessness.
Mortensen said the youth shelter plan is not well thought out and has not been presented well. Originally, in January the shelter was estimated to cost about $5 million, but by April the total jumped to $8.1 million.
Some of these reasons for the increase include the state grant requesting separate rooms for the kids instead of the original plan for dormitory-style housing, a Community House contractor reported Sept. 20.
Mortensen said issues like this should have been foreseen, and the $5.3 million grant stretched before looking for more money.
In addition, separating children from parents deserves a high bar of consideration and review, he said.
He’s also received blow back from his comments to Morrison. The “deliberate hatefulness and condemnation” from citizens’ emails over the Sept. 20 meeting “has taken its toll,” Mortensen said, but he also doesn’t see how apologizing would help because “what I said was the truth.”
Mortensen said he wants to see hard numbers on how the shelter will be successful, while Morrison said the roughly 75% of Community House families and 50% of individuals moving into stable housing a year should be proof enough.
More importantly, his daughter’s death has nothing to do with the shelter’s potential success, he added.
He equated the effects of drug abuse on the brain to a stroke, though he said people have more empathy for the latter. Recovery is a slow, tedious process that requires stable housing, as well as empathy and grace, he added, and every battle doesn’t end in a win.
“I thought Mariah would make it,” Morrison said as he teared up in his office. “I thought she’d be able to overcome it.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the type of assistance the youth shelter expects not to need in order to operate.