This morning, Oregon representative and Republican gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler stood at a podium in front of Wapato Jail to announce his support of a "plan" to turn the never-opened detention center into a mass homeless shelter and "treatment facility."
"I will fast-track the Wapato facility... so that we see results quickly resolving our homelessness crisis," Buehler said. "This facility will no longer sit idle and it will not be demolished. And today, I'm calling on Kate Brown to join me and endorse the plan to turn Wapato into a shelter for those experiencing homelessness."
Thing is, that plan doesn't exist.
Asked by the Mercury to detail his plan for Wapato, Buehler's campaign staff emailed a copy of Buehler's "homelessness plan," which supports turning "surplus government properties" into homeless shelters. It is not a plan to turn Wapato into a homeless shelter. That may be because every past iteration of this plan has been proven far too costly for taxpayers to support—and leaves little funding left over for the local homeless programs that have demonstrated success.
"This facility is a concrete example of something that could be done to get people off the street and into a safe place where we can get them the care they need," said Buehler. "Instead, it has sat idle and now may be demolished due to lack of leadership."
It's clear Buehler hasn't done his homework. Perhaps it's time we remind him—and everyone who still thinks Wapato is the solution to Portland's housing crising—why this idea hasn't ever taken off.
Wapato Jail was built for $58 million in 2004, but budget cuts kept Multnomah County from ever being able to make use of it. In recent years, local lawmakers have brainstormed ways to turn the facility into something more useful for the county—while continuing to pay around $300,000 a year to maintain the building. In 2016, after Portland announced a homeless state of emergency, the county commissioned a study on the feasibility of turning the jail into a homeless shelter.
"Knute Buehler is turning people's suffering into political gain. There is no plan to endorse that."
The plan would cost the county more than $1.5 million, not including the costs of staffing or operating the facility. Multnomah County Commissioners decided it was wiser to spend that money on programs that created longterm housing and more accessible shelters. (Wapato Jail sits 11 miles from downtown Portland and 22 miles from Gresham.) County homeless advocates, longtime transitional housing program managers, and those who've experienced homelessness supported this decision, saying that shuttling people out to an abandoned jail, miles from needed resources, was a massive waste of time and money—not to mention inhumane.
In April, the commission voted to sell Wapato for a measly $5 million to developer Marty Kehoe.
"Building Wapato was a mistake but holding onto it any longer would also be a mistake," said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson at the time.
Kehoe then sold the propoerty to Jordan Schnitzer, one of Portland's wealthiest developers, who said he wanted to turn the facility into a homeless shelter with private dollars. But the price proved to be too burdensome even for Schnitzer. In a Septemeber interview with Willamette Week, Schnitzer said the $50,000 monthly cost to maintain the building simply isn't worth it—and he'll likely demolish the place if the city doesn't rent the building from him as a shelter. According to the Portland Business Journal, that's when Buehler called Schnitzer and requested he wait until the November 6 election before deciding whether to bulldoze the property.
Which brings us to today's press conference, a moment for Buehler to explain his unusual support with a detailed plan. Instead, he told reporters that he toured Wapato earlier in the morning and thinks it's a good idea. He offered no data, research, or expertise to back up this conclusion.
Asked if Gov. Brown will endorse Buehler's plan, Brown's campaign spokesperson, Christian Gaston, chuckled.
"He's asking the governor to support a plan that doesn't exist," Gaston says. "Knute Buehler is turning people's suffering into political gain. There is no plan to endorse that."