What’s Happening at Wapato?

By Don MacGillivray

Portland is in the process of transforming its greatest white elephant into what could be an answer to the long-standing plight of the homeless in the region. It is being done without any significant financial resources from local governments.

The Wapato Correctional Facility, a 155,400 square foot minimum security detention center on a 15-acre site in North Portland, was finally built in 2003. Its construction was the culmination of a plan that began in the 1990s when there was an increase of crime and drug arrests amid Portland’s growing population.

A larger and more modern jail facility was thought to be needed, and funding, in the form of $46 million bond, was approved in 1996 for its construction.

Another $12 billion contribution came from the state of Oregon, although obtaining funding for the project didn’t ensure smooth sailing.

It was controversial every step of the way from its justification, its size, its cost, its location and almost everything else about it. The new county leadership found that maintenance and upkeep would be over $1 million a year for the new Wapato jail.

Then a decline in crime and new state property tax limitation measures made the costly operation of the new jail impossible. Even so, the county was required to maintain the unused building at a cost of about $400,000 annually.

It could not be sold because of regulatory restrictions on the property and the financing did not allow any other uses. Some of these restrictions expired in 2016, allowing the sale of the facility to become a possibility.

Strong interest to use it as a facility to house and rehabilitate Portland’s homeless had materialized. For the past 30 years, there have been homeless people living on private and public land in unsightly, unsanitary, unsafe and illegal conditions causing businesses and homeowners excessive grief and expense. Blocking this site’s use has been its zoning as Heavy Industrial.

Wapato was purchased In the spring of 2018 by developer Marty Kehoe and was quickly sold to real estate financier, Jordan Schnitzer for $5 million, with the intent that it be developed as a homeless facility similar to the Haven of Hope located in San Antonio, TX.

The City of Portland and Multnomah County made it clear that the facility must be funded entirely with private donations to prevent any duplication of services for the homeless. Another major objection was that Wapato is nine miles from downtown, where many social services and employment opportunities are located.

Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers came into the picture in late 2019 and they are the 15-year-old program that operates 11 facilities for the homeless on the Oregon coast.

Working with Jordan Schnitzer they made plans to turn Wapato into a facility named Bybee Lakes Hope Center. In the first two months of 2020 Helping Hands has been very successful in raising several millions of dollars toward this new facility.

DAY-Construction Project Management is organizing the project and an architect and contractor will be hired soon.

All the homeless clients that enter the Bybee Lakes Hope Center will be expected to work toward their successful transition to a normal, independent lifestyle. It will be done with love and respect in a facility that will honor every individual.

There will be rules to follow, drug screenings and alcohol checks. Data will help to determine the population’s needs, track progress and indicate the future direction.

The first four days will be an evaluation period to determine individual needs. Clients will attend self-improvement and skill-building programs.

Plans for the facility include medical care, mental health and addiction services, referral services, an industrial kitchen, vegetable garden, an area for camping and a variety of training programs.

Clients will be asked to do community service each week and pay a nominal monthly fee for their care. If a person is unable to pay the monthly fees, scholarships will be available.

Excellent support for the facility has been expressed by a number of state political leaders and other leaders in the business community. The attention continues to grow, but the annual operation of the facility is expected to be about $1.5 million.

Local government support and funding is expected to be minimal unless it is for program coordination. What is needed now is the goodwill and positive reinforcement of the larger Portland community. Tours of the facility and volunteer workdays are planned when this becomes practical again.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted so many facets of life and it has also presented another potential use for the facility.

Oregon’s former Governor, John Kitzhaber, previously an emergency room doctor, has suggested that it could be quickly expanded to supply the needs of several hundred patients recuperating from the coronavirus.

The initial plan for the Bybee Lakes Hope Center is to serve 225 homeless clients in three of the nine independent wings leaving six wings available for potential coronavirus patients.

This concept is supported by Jordan Schnitzer and the Helping Hands organization. It does not appear at this time that this will be necessary, but it is hard to know what the future holds.

What’s Happening at Wapato?

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