On Thursday, April 12, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners will vote on whether the county should sell Wapato Jail, a remote, 525-bed facility that’s never been used. Should the deal go through, the jail will be leveled and the land resold. But if County Commissioner Loretta Smith gets her way, Wapato will remain county property—and be converted into a massive shelter for hundreds of Portland’s homeless residents.
“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,” Smith said at an April 2 press conference held in front of the empty jail. “Our homeless crisis is real.” No members of the homeless community were present.
Wapato has been a costly, embarrassing burden on the county for more than a decade. Shortly after building the $58 million facility in 2004, Multnomah County was forced to make major budget cuts, leaving Wapato with no operational funds. Every year since, the county’s paid $300,000 to maintain the vacant jail.
Since Smith’s announcement, several other outspoken Portlanders have backed the plan—including developer Homer G. Williams, who’s perhaps best known for successfully keeping the Right 2 Dream Too homeless community from moving in next to one of his Pearl District properties. Last week, Williams made the county a $7 million offer to purchase Wapato and turn it into a privately owned and operated homeless shelter.
At first glance, it seems logical to turn Wapato into a shelter: Portland has a major deficit in beds for the hundreds of houseless individuals in the city. Meanwhile, the county owns a never-used facility with hundreds of beds, along with power, heating, bathrooms, and kitchen space.
“I’d rather sleep in a tent under the Morrison Bridge than sleep all the way out there."
But for houseless residents and their advocates, the Wapato plan is a clear example of how out of touch some local leaders are with the city’s homeless population.
Wapato, which sits two miles from Kelley Point Park, is twice as far from Portland’s downtown as it is from the downtown of Vancouver, Washington. Using public transit, getting to Wapato currently requires a 90-minute bus ride and a 25-minute walk from Portland’s downtown, where the vast majority of the city’s homeless services are located.
“It’s a bad idea,” says DJ Husar, a formerly homeless Portlander, sipping his morning coffee at Sisters of the Road Café. “I’d rather sleep in a tent under the Morrison Bridge than sleep all the way out there. What if I have a doctor’s appointment in the morning? So many providers are right here.”
Husar is one of the many regulars at Sisters of the Road, the nonprofit cafeteria that’s served inexpensive meals to Portland’s homeless for nearly 40 years. Husar started visiting the Old Town café when he was homeless, and has kept it a part of his daily routine since moving into Central City Concern housing down the street. For Husar, being near the city center is about more than just accessing useful services. It’s also about the community that’s relied on by many Portland residents who’ve struggled to find consistent housing.
“The people I see here every day, they’re my family,” Husar says. “You can’t just pick that up and move it elsewhere. Homeless people already feel invisible as it is. This just makes it worse.”
“Thinking that people sleeping outside are not part of the community, that’s the problem,” says Bryn Harding, spokesperson for Sisters of the Road. “It feels like they’re trying to export the problem away. You can’t export members of our community.”
It doesn’t help that there’s an inevitable connotation of incarceration that comes with housing homeless individuals inside a jail facility—especially on the heels of Mayor Ted Wheeler’s recent promises to decriminalize homelessness.
“If the first step is to put the homeless in a jail,” Harding says, “that’s a problem.”
RELATED: “County Comissioner Loretta Smith Wants to Turn Isolated Jail into Homeless Shelter” [Blogtown, April 2, 2018]
Another issue: housing so many people in a single building. While Portland’s seen an uptick in people sleeping in homeless shelters, there’s a consensus among those who use them—and particularly among families—that large shelters are generally unsafe.
“Many people won’t go into a big shelter. It’s scary for them,” says Brandi Tuck, director of Portland Homeless Family Solutions. “Especially if there are more than 100 beds, it’s going to be hard to manage.”
Last week, people waiting in line for a meal at Sisters of the Road shared anecdotes of staying in larger shelters—stories that included being robbed, getting sick, and being unable to sleep due to the constant noise of people checking in and out.
“It’s often the last resort,” said one man.
Other issues with Wapato remain unaddressed, including that the property is under a “restrictive deed” from its original owners, the Port of Portland. That deed prohibits any residential use on the land, and current city zoning for the property also forbids housing from being built.
To rally for Wapato’s use as a shelter, Commissioner Smith has partnered with a group of Southeast Portland residents who oppose the county’s planned shelter on Southeast Foster. But she hasn’t met with Portlanders whose neighborhood actually includes the facility.
“The neighborhood association was not contacted by the city and continues to not be engaged in the discussion,” wrote Kyle Janus, co-chair of the St. Johns Neighborhood Association, in an email to the Mercury.
Smith is the only county commissioner interested in keeping Wapato. On Thursday, April 12, the commissioners will vote on whether to sell Wapato to developer Marty Kehoe for $5 million—half of Kehoe’s original offer—so that the land can be leveled and resold. Commissioners previously decided that any funds from a potential sale would go toward services for Multnomah County’s homeless and affordable housing initiatives.
As he clears his plate at Sisters of the Road Café, Husar says the commissioners’ decision comes down to one question: “Would a regular, housed person want to sleep in a jail?”