(Not the prison, though it does say “Wapato.”) Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

September 18, 2019; The Oregonian

In the 1990s, residents of Multnomah County voted to spend $46 million to build the Wapato minimum security facility 11 miles from central Portland. The state chipped in an additional $12 million, and the facility was completed in 2005.

It has never been used.

Residents also voted to cap property taxes that year, and the city had to admit, even as the facility opened, that they didn’t have $10 million to operate it. Wapato was sold to N Bybee Lake Court, LLC, a project-specific entity owned and managed by Kehoe Northwest Properties, LLC.

The owner of Kehoe, Jordan Schnitzer, is aligned with advocates who say the facility should be turned into a homeless shelter. They include Kay Toran, Volunteers of America CEO; Portland Police Association chair Daryl Turner; and a group called the Montavilla Initiative.

Support from the Montavilla Initiative is a clue that perhaps the idea has some flaws.

In some respects, it sounds great. As Schnitzer said, there’s a facility, “it’s here, and it’s built, and it’s paid for.” A video posted by The Silent Partner Marketing claims $90 million of taxpayer money has been spent. (Silent Partner does marketing for law enforcement groups.) There are dental and radiology facilities, classrooms, and beds for hundreds of people.

Advocates for the plan say it would be a combination shelter and treatment facility, where people suffering addiction could receive counseling and people without work could get advice. Turner, the police union officer, described his dilemma this way: When he gets calls about people demonstrating erratic or unsafe behavior who are homeless, and either under substance influence or suffering from mental illness, he has nowhere to take them but the emergency room or the police station. He wants to open Wapato so they have somewhere else to go. Right, the prison.

Turner said that he’s tired of police being the catchall and scapegoat for what Schnitzer describes as Portland’s “problem” with people experiencing homelessness.

“Mayor [Ted Wheeler] has thrown Portland Police Officers under the bus,” he said, “instead of saying what we all know to be true: that his proposed solutions to our homelessness crisis have failed.”

Turner was responding to criticism over the fact that although people experiencing homelessness in Portland are about three percent of the population, they made up over half of arrests in 2017.

And that’s kind of the problem. Many people behind this solution—turning Wapato into a shelter—talk about people experiencing homelessness as a problem for “families,” as Turner described them (presumably meaning families who are not homeless), rather than people who in their own right deserve attention, resources and care.

Schnitzer wanted to know, “Where are the rights of the other folks in the community that are paying taxes, that are working hard, trying to make a living?” (Again, presumably individuals in those categories who are not experiencing homelessness, as the implication that one cannot be both is incorrect.)

The Montavilla initiative was described by the Portland Mercury as a “combative group” that has been accused of harassing people in homeless encampments, and has advocated for more police in neighborhoods where people without houses reside.

There was talk about converting Wapato to a shelter years ago, when it became apparent that it would never be a jail. But it’s zoned “heavy industrial,” so it’s not approved for any kind of residential use. Also, again, it’s 11 miles out of town, so people who came for assistance or treatment would be 11 miles from family, friends, and any resources but the ones in the building—which, by the way, isn’t particularly designed to accommodate persons with disabilities.

Kay Toran from Volunteers of America, who also appeared in the video, said that one of her board members had offered to make 24/7 transportation services available if needed, so that wouldn’t be a problem. She reminded viewers that “we do not have a professional intake center” in Portland. Still, there is yet no formal offer or agreement.

There’s another potential option for people in need of homes and services: the many homes that have been foreclosed upon—the so-called “zombie houses.” There are so many that Loretta Smith, who is running for city council, proposed selling them at lower rates to police officers, even though, as the Portland Mercury pointed out, her plan assumes “the only reason police officers don’t live in Portland is because of the city’s high cost of living. While it’s surely a piece of the equation—there’s no evidence pointing to this being the case.” Smith also supports making Wapato into a shelter.

We get it; it’s frustrating to have spent millions of dollars on a facility and get absolutely nothing out of it. Schnitzer says if he doesn’t see a proposal with funding from the city by October 1, he’ll demolish it, because it costs $50,000 per month in upkeep.

But treating a whole group of people with the “out of sight, out of mind” attitude—giving them a building that the city just doesn’t want—is that really the duty of care we want to show citizens?

Maybe Wapato could be operated by a group in such a way that it would serve as a real community resource. Maybe someone would commit to making it accessible, welcoming, well resourced, and community based. But so far, no one has stepped up.—Erin Rubin