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Kafoury: Wapato off table for homeless

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PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - The 525-bed Wapato Correctional Facility has not opened since Multnomah County completed it for $58 million in 2004.Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said she will not schedule a public forum on using the unopened Wapato Correctional Facility for homeless services.

Kafoury told the Portland Tribune editorial board last week that she is firm in her belief that Wapato is unsuitable to be a homeless shelter, and she did not want to hold a forum for an idea that wouldn’t be pursued. Kafoury met with the board after the newspaper posted an online editorial calling for a public forum on using Wapato for a homeless shelter or service center. The editorial was published in the Jan. 7 issue (“Public deserves chance to talk about Wapato”).

Kafoury said anyone can talk to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners during the time reserved for public comment at the beginning of its regular Thursday meetings. Citizens may fill out a public comment sign-up sheet and submit it to the board clerk 15 minutes before the meeting is called to order. Testimony is limited to three minutes. The next meeting is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 21.

Kafoury also said the future of Wapato will be discussed during the process for setting the county budget for the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1, 2016. Multnomah County has been paying off both county and State of Oregon bonds for its construction, and spending approximately $300,000 a year for maintenance.

Kafoury said too many obstacles have to be overcome to use Wapato for homeless services, including an estimated $5 million in startup costs, an estimated $700,000 in ongoing operational costs, and its location 11 miles north of downtown, where many social service agencies currently are located.

“There’s no use continuing to have a conversation about what’s not going to work. That’s going in the wrong direction. Instead we should be talking about what we know that works, which is creating more permanent housing,” Kafoury said.

Wapato was built as a 525-bed minimum security jail and secure alcohol and drug treatment facility for $58 million in 2004. It has never opened, but is used occasionally by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office for training and search and rescue operations, and as a set for movies and TV programs.

Discussions over using Wapato for homeless services have begun since the county and Portland declared housing emergencies because of a shortage of affordable housing and increasingly visible public camping by homeless people.

In recent months, the Portland Business Alliance has written the county proposing that a portion of Wapato be opened as an emergency shelter. Homeless advocate Jeff Woodward has started an online petition calling for Wapato to be used as a comprehensive homeless service center. So far, he has collected more than 3,500 signatures. Other homeless advocates oppose using Wapato for homeless services, however, including the editorial board of the nonprofit Street Roots, a publishing and advocacy organization.

Portland has sited two temporary homeless shelters since the City Council declared a housing emergency in October. One is a six-month shelter for up to 130 women and their partners at the former Jerome Sears Army Reserve Center in Southwest Portland. Another is a shelter for up to 100 men scheduled to open in a vacant office building for three to six months in the near future. Multnomah County also is helping to finance the first permanent shelter for women and children in a former strip club at Southeast 160th Avenue and Stark Street that is scheduled to open by the end of the month.

The city and the county also are working together through a coalition called A Home for Everyone to spend $30 million to increase shelters, transitional housing, affordable housing and other services for homeless and low-income people.