Chair Kafoury plans talk with PBA board about homeless plan

PORTLAND TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Some of the 525 empty beds and lockers at the never-opened Wapato Corrections Facility in North Portland. County officials say it is not a viable homeless shelter.Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury has requested to meet with the board of the Portland Business Alliance to explain why the Wapato Corrections Facility cannot be opened for homeless services.

Wapato is a 525-bed, minimum-security jail the county completed for $58 million in 2004 but never opened in far North Portland. In a Dec. 8 letter to Kafoury, PBA President and CEO Sandra McDonough proposed opening a portion of the unused jail as an emergency shelter pilot project.

“The truth is that the Wapato facility was a significant investment by Multnomah County taxpayers and it has been sitting useless for more than a decade. That makes no sense considering the need for services in our community,” McDonough wrote.

You can read McDonough's letter here.

PBA Chair Mitch Hornecker also proposed opening a portion of Wapato as an emergency shelter in a Dec. 22 column in the Business Tribune.

However, in a Dec. 23 reply letter, Kafoury says that using Wapato for homeless services is not a viable option because of cost, age and location issues. A Nov. 10 memo from the Department of County Assets estimated it would cost $5 million to open Wapato and $700,000 a year to staff it as a homeless shelter, in addition to $300,000 the county already is spending to maintain it.

“It makes no sense today to divert millions of dollars that provide shelter where people need help and can access services to an isolated jail that has already cost taxpayers millions of dollars and cannot be opened without costing millions more. Everyone thinks there is a silver bullet, but Wapato is the wrong facility in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Kafoury wrote.

In her letter, Kafoury says it makes more sense to create shelters and housing closer to downtown, where homeless services are located. She said PBA members include landowners, building managers and property developers who could help find “viable, cost-effective, short-term shelter options in inner Portland.”

Kafoury also said she will refuse to participate in “warehousing” vulnerable people in Wapato, which is around eight miles from downtown and only served by a single bus line that does not run on weekends.

You can read Kafoury's letter here.

McDonough says the PBA board met with Kafoury and Mayor Charlie Hales to discuss homeless issues in November and would be happy to do so again. In the meantime, Kafoury, McDonough and Hornecker are scheduled to meet in January.

Opening Wapato for homeless services is being debated because both Portland and Multnomah County have declared homelessness to be a crisis. The most recent homeless count revealed that nearly 2,000 people are living on the streets. There are fewer than 1,000 emergency beds available even in the winter, however, meaning that many homeless people seeking shelter are turned away every night.

Since the City Council declared a housing state of emergency in October, it has opened a 150-bed shelter in the former Sears Armory in Southwest Portland. It is scheduled to close after six months, however, because of federal restrictions on the transfer of the property to the city for use as an emergency management center.

Also in October, the Multnomah County Commission loaned $672,000 to the nonprofit Human Solutions social service agency to convert a former strip club at 16015 S.E. Stark St. into a year-round 130-bed shelter for woman and children. Kafoury cited it in her letter to McDonough as proof of the country’s commitment to “opening new shelter beds as quickly as possible.” It will not open until February, however.

The city and county also have agreed to spend $30 million on affordable housing in coming years, including $5 million on additional shelters.

No other new emergency shelters have yet been announced by the city or county.

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