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Oregon nonprofit Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers seeks funds for North Portland homeless shelter.

PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - A woman inspects a rendering for the proposed Bybee Lakes Hope Center during a fundraiser on Saturday, Jan. 11.Would a jail called by any other name smell more sweet?

The backers of the proposed Bybee Lakes Hope Center certainly think so.

Plans to convert the never-used Wapato Corrections Facility into a North Portland homeless refuge took a step forward Saturday, Jan. 11 — with the unveiling of the Oregon nonprofit that would operate the center if enough funds are found to save it from the wrecking ball.

Helping Hands already operates 11 emergency shelters and re-entry programs in Clatsop, Tillamook, Yamhill and Lincoln counties, and founder Alan Evans says he will rely on his own experience with homelessness to create a data-driven, trauma-informed center here.

PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers CEO Alan Evans, left, and Director of Data Raven Russell described their Oregon nonprofit to a crowd Saturday, Jan. 11 in The Reserve building in downtown Portland. "I lived on the streets. I nearly froze to death. I committed crimes to survive," Evans said in an emotional speech, recounting how a childhood of abuse led to years of addiction. "We are the right people for this. If we can fix this thing here, this will be a model for the rest of the nation."

As described, Bybee Lakes would initially serve 228 people — all referred to the center by other local agencies — who would live in three dorms, with one each for men, women and families. That would still leave another six dorms empty, which could be dedicated to detox, mental health, job training or other specific needs down the line.

But first, the money.

Noted philanthropist and businessman Jordan Schnitzer, who controls the property and has delayed turning it into a warehouse, says renovations, start-up and the first two years of operations at Bybee Lakes will cost $4 million. Yet only $1.4 million has been raised so far. Donations are being solicited by Helping Hands. PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Jordan Schnitzer unveiled his plans for the Wapato Corrections Facility on Jan. 11 in Portland.

"If there's a viable program, with a lot of community partners and it's well funded, I can't imagine any agency in this community saying no. I just can't conceive of it," said Schnitzer, adding in an interview: "It's not a jail, there's not a single cell."

Multnomah County's elected commission has flatly rejected the idea — as have some of the homeless service providers who receive funding from the county. Instead, Chair Deborah Kafoury and the board have focused on the Bushong Building, which they purchased along with a downtown parking lot for $5.8 million. Government planners say it will cost another $15 million to $20 million to retrofit it into a mental health facility.

Schnitzer says he passed on buying the Bushong Building, 333 S.W. Park Ave., calling it a "piece of junk" and saying it was probably worth $3.5 million.

PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Portland businessman Jordan Schnitzer says upkeep on the never-used Wapato facility continues to cost him $40,000 a month. Other hurdles faced by the Bybee Lakes project include convincing the city to rezone the industrial property and persuading TriMet to improve bus service in the area.

"Why would we tear something down to go try to raise the money to build this someplace else, when we have a building that will work?" asked Evans, the nonprofit founder. "We're not going to take no for an answer."

But the question of the jail that never was is hardly over. Schnitzer's permit to demolish the facility expires in March.

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