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My View: Open Wapato to homeless

The road to self-sufficiency starts at county's unused jail -

PMG FILE PHOTO - Wapato Jail cost $58 million to construct and has never been used.How many readers would want to live in a dwelling with walled-off sewer flies? How about electrical wiring that smolders and emits a noxious odor? Seismically unsound? No fire sprinkler system? No kitchen and inadequate toilet facilities? On one of the most dangerous intersections in Portland? A building considered by the county as “the lowest-rated building in the entire inventory of county facilities?” No?

At that building on July 7, County Chair Deborah Kafoury told a standing-room-only assembly she chose the Hansen Building, with these safety concerns and a cost of $140,000 for minor repairs, as a place good enough to house Portland’s homeless.

Multnomah County has a better option at the Wapato facility, but Kafoury steadfastly looks for ways to eliminate that site saying, “The location is too far away from downtown or Gresham; $145,000 to make minor changes.” I do not believe her reasons are insurmountable. Wapato is a pristine, unused facility built in 2004 to the highest standards of safety. Wapato’s natural surroundings enhance a seismically sound building. It’s ADA compliant, free of lead contamination and sewer flies, and has modern comfort systems. It can offer dorms to separate men, women, couples and teens.

Built as a self-contained, full-service facility in a campus environment, Wapato provides 525 beds, adequate shower/toilet facilities, a commercial kitchen, laundry and dining hall. Generous open spaces provide options for education and job training. There also is space for drug and alcohol treatment and medical care. It is beautifully landscaped with public art, exercise space and even a dog kennel for resident pets.

Wapato’s structure in a job-rich location, with over 115 companies within easy walking, biking or bus distance, has the potential to end the cycle of homelessness. TriMet’s Rivergate bus No. 11 serves Wapato and connects to MAX at the Expo Center. Entry-level to family-wage jobs, with benefits, are currently advertised on A-board signs throughout the neighborhood, many offering job training. What better location for a population that wants to work and needs a chance?

Critics claim this use isn’t compliant with Wapato’s financing. According to Multnomah County’s 2014 Request for Interest for the Acquisition and Repurposing of the Facility, penalties exist if Wapato is used for private purposes prior to bond repayment. Housing the homeless is a public, not private, purpose and Transition Projects, the proposed operator of the county’s facility, is a nonprofit organization. Alternatively, the county could staff some or all of Wapato with county employees.

Critics allege a stigma is attached to the building even though it was never used as a correctional facility. Look at the success of McMenamins Edgefield (former Multnomah County poor farm) and planned redevelopment of the Troutdale Jail as a hotel to see the fallacy of this argument.

Unlike the Hansen Building, 12240 N.E. Glisan St., Wapato offers the county an opportunity to break the cycle of homelessness with on-site health and employment services in a safe environment. Why warehouse the homeless in an unsafe building when the county can safely get them to self-sufficiency at Wapato?

Harriett Heisey is retired and a resident of the Glendoveer neighborhood in Northeast Portland.