The Portland Police Association's Wednesday meeting on homelessness was pitched as a brainstorming session.
"This is just us, getting together as a community and coming up with solutions," said Portland Police Association (PPA) President Daryl Turner, who led the evening conversation at PPA's North Portland headquarters.
The event was not widely advertised—most of the attendees had heard about it through their neighborhood Facebook page or Nextdoor app. That meant there were only one or two advocates representing the homeless community at the forum, including Right 2 Survive's Ibrahim Mubarak. The rest of the attendees were people from different neighborhood organizations, most of whom are unhappy with how the city has addressed problems surrounding homelessness.
One of the main groups represented was the Montavilla Initiative, a group unaffiliated with the Montavilla Neighborhood Association and founded on a request for stricter policing of homeless people in their community.
"We want to come to a common ground on points we can task our city and county leaders with," Turner explained to the small room of 40 attendees. "We're open to any ideas."
But from the start, it was clear there was only one idea on the table: Wapato.
Turner addressed the group while standing in front of a PowerPoint presentation that flipped between photos of homeless camps, homeless people, and pictures of Wapato Jail, a never-used county jail built in far North Portland. Turner is one of the few outspoken supporters of a vague plan to turn Wapato into a homeless shelter, joining Multnomah County Comissioner Loretta Smith and a handful of real estate developers.
Earlier this year, after studying the feasibility of turning Wapato from a jail to a homeless center, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners voted to sell the facility to Jordan Schnitzer, one of Portland's wealthiest developers. Commissioners (aside from Smith) cited cost-analysis studies and anecdotal evidence to reach conclusions that Wapato was too inconvenient (it's located 11 miles from downtown Portland's congregation of homeless services), too expensive to convert into a shelter, and too stigmatizing for the homeless population.
Shortly after purchasing the property, Schnitzer said he was still interested in leasing the building to fellow developer Marty Kehoe, who wanted to run the building as a mass homeless shelter. But after a summer of paying $50,000 a month just to maintain the empty building, Schnitzer appeared to change his tune: Last week, he held a press conference with Commissioner Smith at Wapato, asking the local government to help him get the project up and running.
"We need the political leadership to help work with people like me who want to do something about the unfortunate folks who are sleeping on our streets," Schnitzer said.
Schnitzer made no obvious request or proposal, but he has threatened to demolish the building if he doesn't find a solution by October 1. County spokesperson Denis Theriault said the county hasn't heard from Schnitzer since they sold him the property.
On Wednesday, Turner echoed Schnitzer's vague call to action.
"The reason we’re not using Wapato is because elected officials would rather stick to their hard ideas and policies that aren’t working, as opposed to listening and using all the resources we already have." —Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner
"City and county leaders have spent tens of millions of dollars of hard-earned tax money on programs and policies that don’t work. It’s politicians and their egos that want to be the ones to solve the problem," Turner said. "The reason we’re not using Wapato is because elected officials would rather stick to their hard ideas and policies that aren’t working, as opposed to listening and using all the resources we already have."
This opinion seemed to clash with the general goal of the night—to bring new ideas about homelessness to elected officials for consideration and approval. Plus, attendees asked, didn't elected officials already rejected the Wapato plan?
"How can we have any expectation that this developer is going to offer to just give up a profit so the city can do something that it shows no signs that it wants to do in the first place?" one woman asked. "How can we put all our eggs in that basket?"
Turner took jabs at Mayor Ted Wheeler and Police Chief Danielle Outlaw, criticizing how they've directed his fellow officers to use low-level arrests to sweep homeless people from downtown sidewalks and camps.
"For years as a police officer downtown, I'd rather take someone to a shelter than... jail," said Turner. "The cycle between jail and the streets... it's a road map for failure."
Several attendees pushed Turner to use his position of authority to change that cycle.
"So, ostensibly the police union would have more sway with the city than we would," said one woman. "Why don't you push back against the sweeps?"
"Well, I would lose my job," Turner replied.
"Well... get a new job. Where’s your ethical line, then?" the woman asked Turner. "If I was ordered to kick people out of their homes for a living, then I would quit."
She was drowned out with taunting laughter from people who support Turner—many of whom seemed to still support arresting homeless people. One woman likened homeless people to criminals, alleging that some of "them" hold up people at knifepoint in her neighborhood.
"It's not okay to have the homeless population infringing so far on the safety of other people," she said. "Sweeping them is not obviously working, but I think that at the same time, we can't let them continue to stay out and threaten the safety of innocent people."
"How can we have any expectation that this developer is going to offer to just give up a profit so the city can do something that it shows no signs that it wants to do in the first place?"—An unidentified community member
The woman went on to say that she's visited impoverished countries where people have lived "joyfully" in places much worse that Wapato. Several people suggested Wapato could be used as an alternative to jail for people who have committed low-level crimes.
For any real change to happen, Turner said, the group would have to convince the city's police commissioner, Mayor Ted Wheeler. That might be on the horizon. According to reporting by Willamette Week, Wheeler recently spoke to Schnitzer on the phone and indicated his interest in reopening negotiations around Wapato's future.
In the meantime, Turner insisted that his hands are tied by "big ego" politicians like Wheeler.
Earlier Wednesday, a number of people attended Portland City Council to ask Wheeler why police officers aren't arresting people—specifically homeless people—in the Parkrose neighborhood.
"The laws will be enforced, and I'm directing they be enforced," Wheeler replied. "If a police officer or a firefighter ever tells you that I tied their hands, they are not telling you the truth.... If an officer ever tells you that, get their name. Get their name. I want to know."