The Hansen Building—either a vital shelter or a death trap, depending on which county official you ask.
The Hansen Building—either a vital shelter or a death trap, depending on which county official you ask. Multnomah County

There's been a flurry of activity around homeless shelters since Portland declared a housing emergency last year, but not anything permanent. The shelter at an old US Army Reserve center in SW Portland had to move after six months, and a downtown emergency shelter provided by the real estate-owning Menashe family is slated to close in a few weeks.

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A slightly longer timeline appears in the works for the latest strategy to replace those resources: Sheltering 200 homeless adults in a rundown building at NE 122nd and Glisan currently occupied by the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office.

Under a plan officials laid out this morning, the Hansen Building will be converted into a nighttime shelter and day space for homeless people later this month. Sheriff's office employees will move to (and lease) part of a Portland Police Bureau building at NE 47th and Burnside.

That's some nimble juggling between a pair of governments that combined their homeless services just last Friday. And as the city grapples with outcry over increasing homelessness in East Portland, the new shelter amounts to the first-such service in the vicinity.

"This is going to be the only shelter capacity for single adults east of MLK," said Marc Jolin, director of the county's new Office of Homeless Services. "It stands alone as a need we haven't met in the community."

Officials including County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Mayor Charlie Hales, Sheriff Dan Staton, and Police Chief Mike Marshman gathered this morning to trumpet the incoming shelter, praising it as a hallmark of teamwork in the face of a common challenge.

Meanwhile, two county commissioners are tearing into the move.

"The recent developments to convert the Hansen Building to a homeless shelter are placing the safety of our most vulnerable residents at undue risk," read a letter penned to Kafoury this morning [PDF] by commissioners Diane McKeel and Loretta Smith, and sent to reporters as the shelter was being announced. They go on to rattle off a laundry list of concerns with the building:

• No fire suppression (sprinklers) or smoke detectors on the two main floors.

• Poor water supply (currently one of the last remaining bottled water facilities in the county).

• Unreinforced block masonry in poor condition.

• Toilet and shower facilities are in poor condition and there are simply too few to accommodate
such large numbers of users.

•There is no kitchen or food preparation area.

• Little to no prior outreach and notification within the neighborhood or surrounding businesses.

• Asbestos throughout the building and within cracked, crumbling, and wrapped areas.

• Electrical wire has a history of burning and smoldering creating fire safety and odor concerns.

• Sewer fly infestation.

"The Hansen Building is the lowest rated building in the entire inventory of County facilities," the letter continues. "We have worked for years to reduce the number of county employees occupying space in the building and as a County have authorized the design of and search for a replacement public safety facility to better serve our community and our employees."

The concerns aren't all that surprising. McKeel and Smith brought a Portland Tribune reporter through the building last week, wrinkling their noses at its odors.

Rather than Hansen, the commissioners suggest something that's been an ongoing debate in Portland for years: housing homeless Portlanders at the county's unused Wapato jail in deep North Portland.

"If we're desperate enough to open the Hansen Building as a shelter, we should be desperate enough to open Wapato," says Eric Zimmerman, McKeel's chief of staff.

Kafoury has declined again and again to entertain the idea in recent months. She's adamant that the building is too isolated, that costs of operation would be too high, and that the optics of housing people in a jail facility are unpalatable.

And while Kafoury this morning acknowledged the Hansen Building "needs a lot of maintenance," her spokesperson, Dave Austin, says the naysaying is unwarranted.

"The chair has been very clear that she wants people to be creative," Austin says. "We have a building that’s going to be vacant. We have a problem with homelessness not just in downtown Portland or inner SE Portland, but in the outer ranges of the county. This will help get people off the streets."

Austin downplayed many of the specific concerns McKeel and Smith raised, saying fire issues could be addressed with adequate staff on site, water issues could be addressed with bottled water if need-be, and that some of the other problems are present at a host of older public buildings.

Still, concerns over the Hansen Building are nothing new. The sheriff's office has been trying to secure a new facility for more than two decades, according to Austin, and the building's maintenance challenges are a central reason officials say they're only planning to keep a shelter there for a year.

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There are still a lot of questions about how the space will work.

Transitions Projects, which will run the operation, plans to prioritize people who've been staying at the downtown Peace Shelter—slated to close July 22. But the organization's executive director, George Davendorf, couldn't say whether the organization would offer TriMet vouchers to people who needed get from downtown to Hansen (which is less than half a mile from the MAX Blue Line stop at NE 122nd). And it's equally unclear how successfully the shelter will attract East Portland's homeless population, much of which is centered around the Springwater Corridor, well south.

And, as both Kafoury and her detractors on the county commission noted, there's some neighborhood disaffection with the proposal—including from businesses in the area.

"Understandably, there are people who feel they didn't know" this was coming, Kafoury said this morning. But she noted: "If you go out there you will see that there are already people living in the streets."