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Former police precinct eyed for homeless

City and county officials are mulling whether to convert a prime Portland Police Bureau property, the former Southeast Precinct on Burnside, into a homeless shelter.

The precinct building at 4735 E. Burnside St. is being looked at as a potential shelter because it was flagged as “under-utilized” by the city, one of several sites that have been looked at by officials looking to site shelters. It’s one of only a few locations under active consideration right now.

“We’re out searching for properties all the time,” says Marc Jolin of A Home for Everyone, a joint city-county program working on homeless issues.

But a tour of the former precinct last week surprised police officers and has contributed to the already poor morale at the bureau. Chief Larry O’Dea is currently under criminal investigation, and the agency faces a staffing shortage that has patrol cops scrambling from call to call.

Housing officials also are scrambling. They’re trying to find short-term and long-term space for homeless people, in part because a large temporary shelter at Sears Armory recently closed, Jolin says. He was part of the tour last Thursday.

It’s unclear if the police building will make the cut. The need to relocate police detectives and K-9 officers still working at the site “obviously would present a challenge, and I’m not sure the layout would be ideal,” Jolin says, “But that’s a discussion folks need to have.”

The nondescript building used to be a Safeway grocery store. It became a precinct for patrol officers in the 1970s. As bureau staffing fell, a consultant found the bureau didn’t need the Southeast Precinct, and it formally stopped being used for patrol functions in 2009.

Still, officers have held out hope that the precinct again will become a home for patrols when new people are hired to fill roughly 60 vacancies. “It’s a place that we would hope to use full-time, 100 percent again,” says Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association.

Turner says a better alternative would be to open the never-used Wapato jail. “Obviously we have a huge homeless problem in the city of Portland, and we need to find some type of resolution to it that’s permanent and ongoing,” he adds.

County Chair Deborah Kafoury has rejected the idea of using the vacant jail to house the homeless, saying that even if money were available for the idea, Wapato’s location is too far from services located in Portland.

News of the precinct tour caught officers off guard, says bureau spokesman Pete Simpson. “It’s fair to say that turning Southeast Precinct into a temporary homeless shelter has not resonated well with the officers and detectives who work in and use the building,” he says.

Assistant Chief Mike Crebs says he’s not sure where the bureau would put the people now working in the building, as other facilities are at capacity. But he says the bureau takes the homelessness crisis seriously and wants to do what it can to help people out.

Dave Hillman, a Mount Tabor resident who co-chairs a Southeast Portland police advisory committee, lives a mile away from the precinct and has been intimately involved with it over the years. He notes that the location is set among schools, retirement homes, and day care facilities.

“I’m not too sure that the people who live in and around there would find that to be a very appealing neighbor,” he says.

Keith Mosman of the North Tabor Neighborhood Association agrees that residents’ reactions would be mixed. But his board isn’t as opposed to siting homeless shelters as some associations are, he adds.

“The board of the association is definitely interested in being part of the solution of the homelessness crisis in Portland,” he says.