By Don MacGillivray

This freezing winter made the homeless situation a first order priority. The deaths of four people due to exposure on the streets was enough to attract great attention.

Over the past five years more than 279 homeless people have died on the streets of Portland. According to the most recent counts, the four-county region is home to approximately 19,000 homeless people.

In Governor Brown’s December 1 speech, she remarked that there are 21,000 homeless children living in Oregon. It is hard to believe Oregonians would allow this to happen. How are these kids to get the education they need to be successful?

Portland’s efforts to address the problem since last summer have been significant and on-going. Mayor Hales ended the relaxation of the camping policy in Portland in early August. Then the winter in Portland began with 450 shelter beds and that has increased to over 1,000.

Working to add more shelters to meet the increasing demand, it costs $8,000 per year to provide a shelter bed in Portland. 6,644 people accessed emergency shelters per year.

The mayor has stated that warehousing of the homeless is not a healthy option. Shelters are expensive and difficult to site, but many homeless people would prefer to remain on the street.

The costs of homeless sleeping in central Portland or on the suburban fringes is more than the costs would be to shelter them.

The homeless may have the freedom to live wherever they want within the city and they also have the responsibility to follow laws, rules, and public decency standards. Rather than punishment, society needs to help these populations find a better life. They need to be prepared for employment, live in sanitary conditions, have access to the community, and help with finding affordable housing.

In 2015 the City helped 3,500 homeless people find housing. Last year this figure increased to 4,600. While this is real success, it implies that more people are woefully in need of help.

More outreach workers are needed and finding affordable housing is always difficult in Portland’s ongoing housing crisis. With the high visibility and the dangers of sleeping on Portland streets, many have suggested that the Wapato jail site become a temporary shelter. After all, it is designed for the rehabilitation of troubled people.

The Wapato Jail is twelve miles north of Portland in the Rivergate Industrial Area. It is a 155,000 square feet building on 18 acres and designed to be occupied  by 525.

The Wapato jail was built in 2004 for $58 million. It costs the taxpayer $300,000 a year to keep it empty. It would cost about $1 million to prepare the facility for a shelter and the operating expenses are estimated at $136,000 a month not including program costs.

Multnomah County Executive Deborah Kafoury believes that this alternative shelter site is too expensive and far away from central Portland.

Others disagree including a minority of the county commissioners and 4,328 people that have signed a petition in favor of using the Wapato site for the homeless.

A few months ago the Terminal One warehouse site, similar to the Wapato site, was purposed by Homer Williams to be used as a shelter. It had an original price tag of from $60 to $100 million.

Wapato is a finished building intended for people that are not dissimilar from the homeless. Since camping is now illegal again perhaps recalcitrant campers could be directed to stay at Wapato and obtain the help they need.

Wapato is a new, modern facility that has many useful features unlike existing shelters that are often re-purposed older buildings. The operations and the personnel of the facility are the largest determinant of the feeling and character of any facility.

Programs and services could be moved there as needed. It would give the homeless the opportunity to address their problems with the assistance of others.

The homeless site of Dignity Village is also far out of central Portland in the Rivergate district yet it has been successful for a dozen years operating on a shoestring. It should not be hard to reroute a TriMet bus line to the Wapato site.

Locating new facilities is both difficult and expensive. That should be obvious since the city and county selected 200 potential sites and none of them were acceptable. Right 2 Dream Too is another example of an outstanding homeless project that can’t be relocated because of heavy, on-going public opposition.

The real problem is that there is not enough housing or work for the homeless. In Portland 185,000 households are eligible for affordable housing, but there are only 30,000 affordable units and no one wants to pay the bill to shelter them.

Going into a shelter may give people hope and a direction toward a better future. Wapato would take people out of the elements, and create an institution that would utilize a modern but empty building to help those willing to help themselves.

The new city administration of Mayor Wheeler will continue to address the challenge to end homelessness with Multnomah County, A Home for Everyone, many local agencies, and the contributions of many local businesses.

Homelessness is a challenge that government and non-profit organizations can’t address alone. The coordination of many community volunteers during the winter storms shows that Portland can come together to provide for those in need in spite of thirty years of struggle.

The numerous churches, volunteer groups and businesses stepped up to help people come in from the cold. Business leaders and the entire community must continue to be active and more resourceful.