Comissioner Smith.
Comissioner Smith. Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County

County Commissioner Loretta Smith really, really wants to turn a defunct, secluded jail into a homeless shelter. On Tuesday, she’ll likely be the sole vote against the commission’s decision to sell the long-vacant jail to an interested developer, a decision that may make the county millions.

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But that didn’t stop Smith from holding a press conference Monday morning in a last-minute attempt to change their minds—or, at least, show voters she tried.

“The seriousness of today is real,” Smith said, standing in front of the remote North Portland Wapato Jail. But the event played more like a stump speech for the councillor—who is running for a city commissioner seat—than a genuine news briefing.

The 155,400-square foot jail has sat empty since it was built in 2004. Thanks to major cuts in the county’s budget, the $58 million facility was never able to open its doors for actual inmates—or anyone, for that matter. The county, who still pays $300,000 yearly to maintain Wapato, has been itching to get the costly facility off its hands for years, but with little luck.

That’s why the pending multi-million-dollar sale to developer Marty Kehoe, who intends on turning it into medical equipment distribution facility, has commissioners eager to move forward. Except for Smith.

“Let's take the charade and shenanigans that have gone on with this sale and let's be done with it,” Smith said Monday, arguing that the county keeps the property. Smith’s reasoning, outlined in an Oregonian editorial, is rooted in the city’s homelessness crisis. She sees Wapato, a facility that can house up to 1,000 residents (inmates, if we’re being technical) with functioning bathroom and kitchen facilities, the solution to the city’s current deficit in homeless shelter beds.

However, the would-be shelter’s location is a dealbreaker for Smith’s fellow commissioners—and a mounting number of homeless service providers.

The jail, built on the Northwest border of Bybee Wetlands, is as isolated as a building can be while still remaining in Portland’s city limits. At the moment, it takes an hour and a half bus ride, plus 25 minutes of walking, to get to the empty facility from downtown. Update: Comissioner Smith's office informs us that if Smith's shelter plan went forward, she'd work with TriMet to set up a new shuttle route to cut this time in half. It’s 12 miles north of the city center, where the majority of the city’s homeless services are concentrated—it’s actually far closer to any of Vancouver’s homeless services than Portland's.

"I feel it's disingenuous to say Wapato would be a smart choice for the county to operate as a homeless shelter when you actually do have all the information," said Commissioner Sharon Meieran at a November commission meeting, according to the Oregonian. "It creates some good talking points, it's easy to say, but it's simply not true."

At the same meeting, representatives from city homeless provider nonprofits said that Portland’s homeless wouldn’t make the long trek away from resources just to get a night’s sleep.

Tomorrow, the commission will hold a closed-door meeting to discuss Kehoe’s counter-offer and, ideally, settle on a final price tag for the jail.

But, even days away from signing the property away, Smith appears prepared to go down swinging. Perhaps it’s because she has another deadline in mind: the May 15th primary election, where she’s running to win the open city commissioner seat Dan Saltzman is leaving behind. At today’s event, Smith shared the podium with a spokesperson for Southeast Allied Communities, a community group that’s rallied against the county’s slated SE Foster homeless shelter. Ironically, this same group has opposed the long-term Foster shelter for being too far from services—but wholeheartedly supports the isolated jail locale.

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Smith, the one commissioner who voted against the Foster shelter in January, thanked the group for their hard work, saying “absolutely” looking out for their community members, not shuttling the homeless out of sight.

“Not one person standing here thinks of this facility as a jail. We see it as an opportunity,” Smith said. “We are not suggesting that we warehouse the homeless, but what we are saying is that this facility can play a pivotal role in our community. “

“Yeah!” one guy cheered.

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