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Why not Wapato?

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PORTLAND TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Unused beds in one of six 50-bed dormitories in the Wapato Corrections Facility. The North Portland building was built for 525 beds.Multnomah County officials are rebuffing repeated calls to open the unused Wapato Correctional Institution for homeless services.

County Chair Deborah Kafoury says there are too many hurdles to be overcome for using the 525-bed North Portland facility to house and serve the homeless. She says they include financial, legal, logistical and land-use obstacles.

“We have seriously studied it,” Kafoury told the Portland Tribune last week. “If it was just one or two things, I’d say press ahead. But there are too many hurdles, and the money could be better spent creating shelters closer to downtown, where the services are.”

In fact, the county is hoping to just sell the never-commissioned facility, which cost $58 million to build and $300,000 a year to maintain since it was completed in 2004.

“Our goal is to get rid of Wapato. It’s a drain on the taxpapers,” says Multnomah County Communications Director Dave Austin.

Others think the county is too quick to dismiss the idea, however. Recent proposals have ranged from using a portion of the facility as an emergency shelter to opening all of it as a comprehensive homeless services center staffed by nonprofit providers.

In a Dec. 22 column in the Portland Tribune, Portland Business Alliance Chair Mitch Hornecker suggested opening part of the facility to the homeless and seeing what happens.

“Maybe we should overcome every ‘no,’ open part of Wapato, and see if some homeless Portlanders will voluntarily choose a safe, dry and sanitary place over another night in a tent in a temporary camp,” Hornecker wrote.

Hornecker isn’t alone. The idea also is supported by businesses in the North Park Blocks, where conflicts with homeless campers escalated into a crisis over the summer. Area business owner Michelle Cardinal says opening Wapato as a shelter would allow the city to enforce its anti-camping restrictions again.

Portland resident Jeff Woodward has started an online change.org petition calling for Wapato to be opened as a homeless facility. It has gathered more than 1,200 signatures in support, so far.

“Wapato can provide more than just emergency shelter to the homeless. It has state-of-the-art facilities, like a large kitchen and a health clinic. The homeless can stay there and receive services from providers until they are ready to move into permanent housing,” said Woodward, co-founder of PDX Disability Services, a 501(c)(3) social-impact venture.

Woodward's online petition is at: change.org/p/wapato-correctional-facility-for-the-homeless-in-portland-oregon.

Not a new idea

The idea is not as farfetched as it seems. The Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in rural southeastern Colorado became a residential homeless treatment center in 2013. Florida’s Gainesville Correctional Institution was transformed into a homeless shelter the next year.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Multnomah County Facilities Manager Mark Gustafson moves a serving cart in the large unused kitchen at the never-opened Wapato Corrections Facility. Some cooking equipment has been removed over the years.Using Wapato as a homeless shelter was debated as recently as 2013, when the Right 2 Dream Too homeless camp started in Old Town. The question is being debated again because city and county leaders have said homelessness is now a crisis.

There are nearly 2,000 people living on the streets in the county, but fewer than 1,000 emergency shelter beds. The City Council has declared a housing state of emergency, which allowed it to quickly open a temporary 150-bed emergency shelter in the Sears Armory it acquired from the federal government in Southwest Portland. Kafoury and Mayor Charlie Hales have pledged $30 million to create more affordable housing and emergency services.

Wapato was built as a self-sufficient minimum security jail. It is a 155,400-square-foot building with three 75-bed dormitories and six 50-bed dormitories with restrooms and showers. The beds, mattresses and pillows are still in place. In addition to the kitchen and clinic, it has locker rooms, training rooms and exercise rooms. Because it is a jail, Wapato has control rooms with video monitors and different areas of the building can be locked off from the rest of it.

Wapato is located on approximately 18.4 acres in the Rivergate Industrial area off of North Marine Drive, near where the Columbia Slough connects to Bybee Lake. Nearby businesses include warehouses and manufacturing firms.

“We’ve been raising the issue for more than a year. It certainly would be better and safer than sleeping on the streets,” said Portland Business Alliance President and CEO Sandra McDonough.

Multnomah County responds

In response to questions about using Wapato for the homeless, Kafoury asked the county’s Department of County Assets to explore the idea. Its Nov. 20 memo cites the following hurdles:

• Financing restrictions: Wapato was built using state and county bond proceeds. The department says the country cannot switch to another permanent use without endangering their tax-exempt status, based on a May 2007 bond counsel opinion. The county bonds expire in July, however, and the state Treasurer’s Office says there are no restrictions on the use of the Oregon bond proceeds.

• Initial capital costs: The department says Wapato will need an estimated $5 million in capital costs before any of it can be put into service. The utilities were designed to serve the entire facility, not a portion of it. Some equipment has been removed, including some large kettles from the kitchen. There is no Internet connection, and the roof is leaking.

• Operating costs: Wapato already costs the county around $300,000 to maintain, including a minimal level of heat to prevent pipes from freezing. The department estimates that staffing Wapato like other homeless shelters would cost an additional $700,000 a year for every 100 beds. That model involves nonprofits providing round-the-clock services. County staffing costs are unknown.

• Zoning restrictions: The property is zoned heavy industrial, which allows for a jail, but not a mass shelter. It is unclear whether the City Council’s declaration of a housing emergency allows it to change that. A zoning change to allow housing would need to be approved by the council and could be challenged before the state Land Use Board of Appeals.

• Accessibility: Wapato is around eight miles from downtown where most homeless services are located. It is difficult to reach without a car. The closest bus line does not run on weekends. Such problems would be reduced if the homeless were allowed to stay at Wapato for extended periods and not moved in and out every day, however.

You can read the memo here.

Advocates argue back

Woodward dismisses the arguments in the memo. He notes Portland’s housing state of emergency allowed the city to quickly open the Sears Armory as a homeless shelter staffed by the Transition Projects nonprofit social service organization. The city also contracted with a bus company to transport the homeless to and from downtown, noting Wapato also could be served by shuttle buses from the MAX station at the Expo Center.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - One of several private exam rooms in the unused health clinic at the Wapato Corrections Facility.Woodward notes Wapato has seen some use in the past few years without a $5 million investment. For example, it housed searchers looking for Kyron Horman for around a week after the second-grader went missing in 2010. County and city employees occasionally use the training rooms. It also has been used for movies and such TV shows as “Grimm.”

Additionally, Woodward believes that many of the homeless should be allowed to stay at Wapato until they are stabilized and prepared to move into permanent housing. He argues that its remote location would benefit those with drug and alcohol problems by providing them a safe alternative to downtown, where such temptations are readily available.

“Multnomah County voters built Wapato to serve the county. I don’t see why it’s even a question,” Woodward says.

But as Austin notes, Wapato is not exactly an inviting facility. It is a large institution with no privacy.

“It was built as a jail, it is not built as a shelter,” Austin says. “People who are homeless, people who are suffering from mental health issues, families with kids — they don’t need to be housed in a jail.”

Cardinal disagrees. She has visted Wapato when her advertising company, the R2C Group, has filmed commercials there.

“It’s clean and dry and much better than living on the streets,” she says.

Kafoury understands why people are so interested in Wapato. But she said a better option is locating and opening more shelters and housing in the downtown area, where transit is plentiful and homeless services already exist. Kafoury said the city and county are currently looking at existing buildings that could be used for housing, although no new downtown ones have been finalized.

“We need the private sector to step up. Homelessness is a community issue, not just a government one. If anyone knows of a building we can use, even temporarily, they should let us know,” Kafoury says.