In two months, Wapato Jail will probably be gone.
The sprawling North Portland facility—which cost $54 million to build—has sat empty for 17 years, after unexpected budget cuts kept Multnomah County from ever opening its doors. In 2018, after finally paying off the bond that funded the unused jail's initial construction, Multnomah County decided to sell the property to the private sector for $5 million. It landed in the hands of Jordan Schnitzer, a wealthy Portland developer who wanted to turn the space into a "community wellness center" for homeless Portlanders.
His proposal, backed by the Portland police union and a small coalition of fellow developers, was contingent on the idea that the public sector would decide to lease the property from him and bankroll his vague plan to turn it into a massive homeless center.
But without a funding source to renovate the outdated complex—or support from any elected officials or homeless advocacy organizations—the plan has fallen flat. At a Thursday press conference in Wapato, Schnitzer said he has decided to raze the building by the end of the year.
"I am sickened that this is going to be demolished in the next few months," said Schnitzer, president of Harsch Investment Properties. "Unfortunately, after 18 months we don’t have anything in writing that lets us... do a lease."
Schnitzer, joined by a small group of supporters, used Thursday's media spotlight to scold elected officials and homeless services providers for not buying into his plan.
"I’ve never come here in an arrogant way and said, 'I know what this should be.' ...This is too big a project for Jordan to say, 'Okay, I'm going to pull this all together,'" said Schnitzer, referring to himself in the third person. "We need political leadership to stand up and not criticize Wapato."
Political leaders have spent the past decade trying to turn the pricey building—located 11 miles from downtown Portland—into something that would make up for the millions of tax dollars spent on it.
According to Multnomah County Commission Chair Deborah Kafoury, the commission has, over the past decade, considered making it a massive co-working space, a drug and alcohol treatment center, and a warehouse for the Port of Portland.
In 2016, the county commissioned a study to evaluate whether or not Wapato could operate as a homeless shelter. The report estimated it would cost $950,000 to renovate and $1.6 million each year to keep operational—far more than the cost to expand already-existing homeless services in a more accessible location.
According to a new analysis by nonprofit Volunteers of America, it would cost an estimated $16.4 million to turn Wapato into Schnitzer's "wellness center" and cost $18.4 million in yearly operational costs.
In the past few months, the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS), which represents both the City of Portland and Multnomah County, opened three new homeless shelters and centers offering a total of 260 beds. One of these facilities, the River District Navigation Center, functions similarly to Schnitzer's plan, with private donors helping fund the construction of a JOHS-run resource center.
In a statement released after Schnitzer's press conference, Multnomah County said that its priority is funding longer-term housing programs rather than mass shelters.
"We’re glad that Jordan Schnitzer has reached the conclusion that he can’t afford to warehouse people in this remote jail," the statement reads. "The $18 million a year that Wapato supporters say they need to fund Wapato, will create 1,000 permanent homes with support services instead. We’re not willing to take funding from those families getting rent assistance, from the people in apartments and shelters, and kick them to the street, just to throw good money after bad."
The county's also in the process of opening a walk-in homeless resource center in downtown Portland. Dubbed the Downtown Behavioral Health Resource Center, the space is intended to help houseless people experiencing addiction or mental illness get set up with temporary and long-term housing, counseling, and peer support.
"We’re glad that Jordan Schnitzer has reached the conclusion that he can’t afford to warehouse people in this remote jail,"—Multnomah County
In his announcement, Schnitzer acknowledged that the county didn't support his plan—but said he believed that Mayor Ted Wheeler was open to the project.
"I’ve known Mayor Wheeler for a long time.... I think he is very smart [and] well-educated," Schnitzer said. "I think it's a complex situation being a mayor of our present city council... that’s a whole other discussion."
This was likely a quiet nod to Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who has remained a strong opponent to the Wapato plan since entering office in January. In an email to the Mercury, a spokesperson from Wheeler's office said the mayor fully supported the statement issued by Multnomah County—a clear signal of his disinterest in Wapato.
Schnitzer also used the opportunity to shake his finger at the region's top homeless services providers for not supporting his plan. In an email to the Mercury, Central City Concern spokesperson Susan Wickstrom said the nonprofit is not involved in the Wapato plan. George Devendorf, director of Transition Projects, was more straightforward.
"Transition Projects has been consistently opposed to the ideas floated in recent years to convert the Wapato facility into a mass service site for people experiencing homelessness," Devendoft wrote in an email to the Mercury. "While additional services are undoubtedly needed to support people experiencing homelessness in our community, we do not believe that Wapato represents an appropriate or cost-effective option."
In the past, other homeless-centric organizations, like Sisters of the Road and Portland Homeless Family Solutions, have expressed their skepticism about Schnitzer's idea.
Volunteers of America (VOA)—a nonprofit that provides residential alcohol and drug treatment—is the sole nonprofit that's backed the Wapato proposal. On Thursday, VOA of Oregon President Kay Toran said she thinks Wapato could work as a treatment and job training facility. Three men who've gone through VOA treatment programs were invited to speak at Schnitzer's press conference, where they spoke about their past struggles with homelessness and addiction.
While Schnitzer stressed that he truly cared about Portland's homeless population, few of his statements reflected that passion.
After shaking a box full of syringes and chiding "addicts" in his initial statements, Schnitzer told the group of reporters: "Speaking of junkies, I am one!" With the VOA alumni standing behind him, Schnitzer explained how he was a "junkie" for philanthropy work and sitting on the boards of nonprofits.
He called out public officials and homeless people for suggesting that homeless shelters would work best downtown, where most of the city's homeless resources are located.
"The friends that I have that are former addicts, they say the last place those recovery programs need to be is downtown, where there’s alcohol or drug dealing going on on the corner," Schnitzer said.
Schnitzer did not invite any people who are currently houseless to the press conference to confirm or deny any of his assumptions.
After shaking a box full of syringes and chiding “addicts,” Schnitzer told reporters: “Speaking of junkies, I am one!” Schnitzer then explained he was a “junkie” for philanthropy work and sitting on the boards of nonprofits.
"Not in a mean way, but where is it that there's a right for homeless people to occupy the streets of downtown Portland?" Schnitzer asked, saying it wasn't "fair."
He said he was "heart-broken" for police officers because they didn't have enough options to know "what to do with these folks." He also said his "heart goes out" to tenants occupying his properties in downtown Portland who have to see people sleeping on their doorsteps every day. He extended that sympathy to people who attend the Portland Symphony at downtown's Arlene Schnitzer Hall.
"Of course, my mother’s name is on the symphony hall," he said. "...[The Portland Symphony] tell us that subscribers are canceling because they don’t want to come downtown at night and deal with the hassle of the homeless people."
It was also frustrating, he said, to hear out-of-towners' critique Portland's homeless problem.
"We don’t live in Mexico City, in India, and see those slums. We don’t live in Brazil," Schnitzer said, adding: "I don’t know what that would be like, I’ve never been to those places."
Schnitzer says he plans to raze the building and replace it with a warehouse that will employ between 30 and 100 people. But he said there's still a chance for someone else to solve his problem.
"If someone in the next two weeks comes through with something I can sign," he said, "we [will] stop the demolition process and have it repurposed for the community."