Wapato Jail to open as Bybee Lakes Hope Center in September
After years of sometimes heated public debate, the former Multnomah County Wapato Jail was formally rededicated as the Bybee Lakes Hope Center on Wednesday morning. Razor wire on top of a fence outside the would-be jail was cut down by workers as part of the Aug. 12 ceremony.
Owner Jordan Schnitzer said the never-used facility will open as a homeless shelter in September and will expand its services by the end of the year.
"We're doing something that almost everyone said couldn't be done," said Schnitzer, a prominent Portland businessman and well-known philanthropist. His company, Harsch Investment Properties, bought the facility in April 2018.
The center will be operated by Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers, a non-profit organization that operates 11 homeless shelters and re-entry programs in Clatsop, Tillamook, Yamhill and Lincoln counties.
"The first time I came to this building, I passed 400 homeless people on the way here. There is a great need for a facility like this, and it is only going to get greater," said Helping Hands founder Alan Evans, who was homeless for many years himself.
The homeless shelter will serve 70 people. The reentry program will serve 228 people in three wings with their full services, including food, bed, bath, job training, rehabilitation, mental health counselling and other facilities.
Schnitzer is leasing the facility to Evan's organization for $1 per year for five years. Helping Hands has so far raised about $4 million in start-up and operating expenses.
Also speaking at the ceremony was TriMet Board of Directors Chair Bruce Warner, who said the regional transit agency will reroute the bus that serves the North Portland industrial area in which the facility is located to go directly to it.
"The symbolism of cutting down the razor wire cannot be overstated," said Warner, who also promised to explore donating surplus TriMet vehicles to the operation.
Oregon state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, a member of the center's advisory board, spoke at the ceremony. "We're transforming a building that serves as a constant reminder of everything we do wrong into everything we can do right," she said.
The facility manager will be Jeff Woodward, a formerly homeless Portlander who lobbied for years to use Wapato for the homeless. He was among some homeless advocates who argued that the medium-security jail and residential treatment center should be used to service the homeless when it was still owned by the county. Multnomah County Commission Chair Deborah Kafoury strongly opposed the idea, arguing that it was located too far away from existing social services on industrial land in North Portland.
The Multnomah County Commission sold the facility to developer Marty Kehoe on in April 19, 2018, for $5 million, a mere fraction of its $58 million construction cost. Kehoe promptly sold it to Schnitzer for the same price a week later. Schnitzer almost immediately set about trying to find an existing or new organization to operate it as a homeless center. After several potential operators fell through, Schnitzer was introduced to Evans by Oregon state Sen. Betsy Johnson. Schnitzer offered to lease the facility to Helping Hands if the organization could raise two years of operating expenses, which it did in a matter of months.
Altogether, Multnomah County taxpayers paid more than $90 million for the Wapato Jail before it was sold to Kehoe without ever opening. In addition to the construction costs, the county also paid interest on the state and county bonds used to finance the facility, plus maintenances costs of around $500,000 per year.
Helping Hands is still seeking $3.5 million in capital donations to help fund renovations that will include adding windows and doors, client laundry areas, playgrounds, community gardens, pet enclosures and more. They are hosting a virtual celebration and fundraiser on Friday, Aug. 28, for this project and all the other facilities in their portfolio.
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