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County should let voters in 2018 consider unused jail as a shelter and services center, union says

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - The unused Wapato jail should be used as transitional housing and a social services hub for the homeless, the union representing Portland police officers says. A proposed sale of the property is scheduled for a vote on Thursday. Developer Marty Keho has offered $10.8 million.The Portland Police Association wants the county board to reject a proposed sale of the unused Wapato scheduled for Thursday and instead let voters decide on its future — calling it "wildly viable" solution to the city's homeless problem.

County commissioners should craft a ballot measure letting voters decide whether "they want to use Wapato as community transitional housing and social service hub," wrote PPA President Daryl Turner in a bluntly worded open letter on Wednesday.

The letter comes as the board is scheduled to vote Thursday morning on the proposed sale of Wapato to Marty Kehoe for use as a distribution center. The longtime real estate developer has offered $10.8 million for the political albatross.

That's well above the $8.5 million appraised value of the property determined in 2014. And it would save the county an estimated $300,000 a year that it spends on upkeep on the never-opened jail, which has caused Chair Deborah Kafoury to make the sale of Wapato a priority.

The police union, however, says a sale would close the door on a solution to Portland's worsening homeless problem.

"The county has spent millions and millions on homeless issues and our politicians have failed us time and again with programs and plans that bring nominal results. It is time to try something different; invest in Wapato as a pilot program," Turner wrote.

He noted that Kafoury has opposed using the jail for homeless services, noting it is well away from the downtown core where many homelesss services are located.

"Kafoury and other opponents say that Wapato is not centrally located to infrastructure and social services, that public transit is inadequate, the facility looks too institutional, and zone and occupancy permit changes will be required," Turner wrote. "These are not insurmountable barriers and the arguments fall short of convincing when lives are on the line.

The 155,400-square-foot jail sits on 18.24 acres of industrial land in the Rivergate Industrial Park. It cost $58 million to build. An analysis by the Portland Tribune shows the total cost to date is more than $90 million, including interest and maintenance payments, and could exceed $105 million by the time all the bonds are finally paid off in 2030.

"Wapato is a 155,400-square-foot facility in 18.24 acres with a commercial kitchen, laundry, toilets, showers, dentist chairs, medical rooms, countless offices and training rooms, and 525 beds. It is a wildly viable, cost effective, and time efficient way to provide warm, clean beds and services to 525 people just to start," Turner wrote. "With the size and expanse of the property and opportunities to phase in more beds and relocate services, Portland could essentially eliminate the homeless crisis and offer social services and housing for all who need it."

He asks the board to "create a 2018 ballot measure asking the voters of Multnomah County if they want to use Wapato as community transitional housing and social service hub.

"Connecting people with the resources and services they need is a big part of our job as police officers and a growing responsibility with our continued staffing crisis at the Bureau. We are most often the first responders for mental health crises, homelessness, and livability issues. Having a central social service hub for these issues gives us tools to build a stronger community; it is a worthy investment," Turner wrote. "Our elected officials take pride in the progressive reputation of our community yet are resigned to idea that Wapato has failed and must be abandoned. We challenge our leaders to think outside the box and see the opportunity to turn Wapato into a success story, creating value and services that save lives."

Denis Theriault, a spokesman for the joint city county Joint Office of Homeless Services, responded to Turner's statement with one of his own:

"The number of people accessing at least a night of shelter has more than doubled in three years, largely because we now have double the number of year-round publicly funded beds than we did then, and also because we stepped up housing placements to keep people from stalling in shelters once they landed there.

"We're now helping 2,000 more people a year into housing over the course of a year than we did three years ago. And it's the same 2,000/person/year improvement in the number of people kept out of homelessness, through help paying their rent or paying utility bills and other similar prevention programs."

"Did the overall number of people counted as homeless still go up? Sure did. But not as high as in other West Coast cities where people can't afford their rent. And for the first time we counted more people in shelter than outside this year. Our unsheltered count actually went down 11.6 percent, though it's not as if 1,668 people still outside is cause for celebration."

What sparked the union's interest? Contacted by the Tribune, Turner said, "When people are camped out, whether it's in tents or in motor homes, and you have to move them, where are they going to go? It's frustrating to us because we're just moving the problem around, we're not solving the problem. It takes away from police resources, it frustrates the community ... It's not serving the people who just need a place to stay."

The full letter appears below:

November 8, 2017

Our Tax Dollars NOT at Work

As the cold weather sets in, it is incumbent on our politicians and city leaders to acknowledge that our public policy is failing and the homeless population in our community is paying the highest price. The rank and file officers of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) see the basic shelter and mental health service needs everyday as residents, business owners, and the homeless of our city struggle for solutions that our elected officials have promised year after year.

From 2007 to 2017, Homelessness in Multnomah County has increased by 6%

The number of homeless nationally has dropped 15% in the last 10 years and in Oregon there are now 20% fewer people without shelter on any given night; yet homelessness in Multnomah County has increased over 6% in the same time period. If you listen to bureaucracy, there is a lot of talk about the improvements, the record number of housing placements, and greater shelter access but we still have 4,177 homeless people in our community and there are still children sleeping outside tonight.

Proposed Wapato Sale Means More Than $48 Million Loss to Taxpayers

Last week, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury signed a letter of intent with Marty Kehoe of Kehoe Northwest Properties to purchase the beleaguered Wapato Facility. Built as a minimum-security detention center in 2004 and costing the taxpayers $58.4 million, the 525-bed facility has never been used outside a handful of movie productions and occasional PPB training; it has proven to be an embarrassing county project. As the county and city continue to grapple with livability issues that have a far-reaching impact on all those who live, work, and recreate in Portland, Kafoury is leading the charge to sell Wapato for $8-10 million dollars; forcing the taxpayers to take an estimated 83% loss on its investment.

Why Not Wapato as Transitional Housing?

In recent years, many have suggested that Wapato could be a perfect short and long-term option to curb Portland's homeless crisis becoming a hub for social services and providing transitional housing. Yet, County Chair Kafoury remains strongly opposed to the idea, causing division even amongst the commissioners while homeless shelter operators, homeless advocates, and residents have voiced support for the endeavor.

Imagine a community hub with secure and safe access to basic needs, medical and mental health services, addiction counseling, job training, family advocacy, and transitional housing with the resources available to move the homeless from the streets to permanent jobs and housing.

Kafoury and other opponents say that Wapato is not centrally located to infrastructure and social services, that public transit is inadequate, the facility lookstoo institutional, and zone and occupancy permit changes will be required. These are not insurmountable barriers and the arguments fall short of convincing when lives are on the line.

Wapato is a 155,400-square-foot facility in 18.24 acres with a commercial kitchen, laundry, toilets, showers, dentist chairs, medical rooms, countless offices and training rooms, and 525 beds. It is a wildly viable, cost effective, and time efficient way to provide warm, clean beds and services to 525 people just to start. With the size and expanse of the property and opportunities to phase in more beds and relocate services, Portland could essentially eliminate the homeless crisis and offer social services and housing for all who need it.

What does it cost us?

According to the county's own facility analysis, Wapato could be minimally prepared for use as a shelter at a start up cost of $950K with an ongoing maintenance cost of $140K per month.

The financial impact of the chronically homeless is staggering. Studies have found that each chronically homeless person costs taxpayers $30,000 to $50,000 per year. With 30% (1,253) of our homeless categorized as chronic, we are looking at a $37 - $62 MILLION in public resources each year. The county has spent millions and millions on homeless issues and our politicians have failed us time and again with programs and plans that bring nominal results. It is time to try something different; invest in Wapato as a pilot program.

Let Voters Decide

We understand County Chair Kafoury's desire to "end the debacle" that is Wapato and move on. But, there is more we can do and we cannot afford to be luxurious with our taxpayer dollars. There is too much at stake to let the county make this costly decision without formal public input in regards to Wapato, thus the Portland Police Association is requesting the following of the Multnomah County Council:

Rescind the letter of intent with Kehoe Northwest Properties for the sale of Wapato, and

Create a 2018 ballot measure asking the voters of Multnomah County if they want to use Wapato as community transitional housing and social service hub.

Connecting people with the resources and services they need is a big part of our job as police officers and a growing responsibility with our continued staffing crisis at the Bureau. We are most often the first responders for mental health crises, homelessness, and livability issues. Having a central social service hub for these issues gives us tools to build a stronger community; it is a worthy investment. Our elected officials take pride in the progressive reputation of our community yet are resigned to idea that Wapato has failed and must be abandoned. We challenge our leaders to think outside the box and see the opportunity to turn Wapato into a success story, creating value and services that save lives.

Daryl Turner, President

Portland Police Association

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