Experts studying Wapato as mental health treatment center
Homeless service providers, medical professionals and law enforcement authorities have convened at Portland City Hall to put Wapato Jail under the microscope — again.
This time, the experts are examining the possibility of transforming the never-used lockup into a facility for treatment of mental health and addiction issues.
The first in an apparent series of closed-door meetings was held on Friday, Oct. 12 after being organized by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.
"As the mayor of this community, it's become very, very clear to me that people expect me to take a leadership role on helping to fill the gaps around mental health services and addiction services," Wheeler said earlier in the day during his monthly press conference.
"The initial read I'm getting from folks is that it's not the right scale, but I want to reserve judgement completely," he added.
Wheeler says he never expected a "great big media frenzy" after word leaked of his continuing conversations with the new owner of Wapato Jail.
In late September, Wheeler personally called the jail's new owner, Jordan Schnitzer, after learning that the noted developer and philanthropist planned to apply on Oct. 1 for demolition permits for the site located north of the St. Johns neighborhood.
Schnitzer purchased the 22-acre property in April for $5 million, and later announced at a joint press conference with City Council candidate Loretta Smith that he was seeking proposals to use the site as a homeless shelter of some sort.
None were forthcoming, and Schnitzer told local media he was losing $50,000 a month in upkeep costs. His new idea was for the site to be razed and rebuilt as warehouses.
That's when Wheeler picked up the phone.
"I know you're on a tight timeframe… but could you wait a little bit," Wheeler recalled himself saying to Schnitzer. "And that's what we're doing."
The new meetings include representatives from Multnomah County, the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health and Central City Concern, among others.
Wapato Jail was completed in 2004 as a 500-plus bed detention facility after voters in 1996 approved a $46 million construction bond. It has never held a single inmate.
Wheeler first sought to repurpose the jail as a re-entry center for those who had exited the correctional system while serving as chair of the Multnomah County Commission.