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Public deserves chance to talk about Wapato


TRIBUNE PHOTO: ALVARO FONTAN - The homeless suffered in tents or with even less shelter in the freezing weather over the New Year's weekend,The tents beneath the Interstate 205 overpasses were rigid with ice and snow and buffeted by a bracing east wind over the New Year’s weekend. Their occupants, huddled inside, had hunkered down in an attempt to survive a cruel existence.

They had no place to call home and were in no proximity to the social services that could add a modicum of comfort to their day.

How easy it was to imagine them in warm beds, off of the freezing concrete and out of the chilling wind. One of these homeless people, in a brief interview broadcast by KPAM 860 radio, even said as much, when asked what he thought of the possibility of turning the never-used Wapato Jail into a homeless shelter. He remarked at how wonderful that prospect would be.

Many Portland-area residents have the same thought, and for good reason. As reported on the front page of the Dec. 29 Portland Tribune, members of the public are pushing hard for Multnomah County to consider using its $58 million white elephant to help alleviate a crisis in housing the region’s homeless.

Wapato was built in far North Portland more than a decade ago with no plan for funding its operation. The 525-bed jail stands as a reminder of precious tax dollars wasted, which is just one of the reasons why county officials should take time to listen to their constituents and give serious consideration to opening Wapato to the homeless.

County Chair Deborah Kafoury has taken the jail off the table in the homeless discussion. She has valid reasons — backed by expert advice — for believing Wapato is not a practical location. Yet, even one of her staunchest partners in the renewed battle against homelessness — Portland Mayor Charlie Hales — told the Portland Tribune editorial board last week that every resource, including Wapato, must be considered.

Hales is far from alone in that notion. After the Tribune’s Dec. 29 article, the number of names on a pro-Wapato petition reached into the thousands. A week earlier, the Portland Business Alliance joined the call for opening Wapato.

Kafoury plans to meet with the PBA to discuss, among other topics, why Wapato is unsuitable for the homeless. In our view, however, a meeting with only the PBA is insufficient. Wapato doesn’t belong to county officials or to the PBA — it belongs to the people of Multnomah County who paid for its construction.

Kafoury should hold a public forum where the full range of viewpoints can be heard. Social service providers, downtown merchants, advocates for the homeless and regional elected officials all have a stake in this decision, and they deserve an opportunity to discuss it.

Such a forum also would allow Kafoury to talk about her reservations publicly. She has noted that it could cost as much as $5 million to reopen Wapato, and an additional $700,000 a year to operate it as a homeless shelter. In a letter to the PBA, Kafoury also pointed out that Wapato is distant from social services, which mostly congregate in the city center, and that she is opposed to “warehousing” the homeless in a facility designed to be a jail.

These objections are real, but they aren’t insurmountable. First, put the cost in perspective. The city and the county already are planning to spend at least $30 million on the homeless problem, with an initial goal of cutting homelessness in half by 2017.

It’s true there are no social services clustered around Wapato because it was built to house inmates, not some of our most vulnerable residents. Nonprofit groups, however, might be motivated to provide services and funding for Wapato’s ongoing operation, should it become a shelter.

As for the issue of warehousing the homeless: On the inhumanity scale, most people would say a comfortable bunk with indoor plumbing nearby is a far more compassionate solution than a sleeping bag and a tent under an interstate bridge on a subfreezing night.

No one will die of exposure at Wapato. That, in itself, is reason enough to discuss how it could play a role in solving Portland’s homeless crisis.