Time running out for Wapato to help the homeless
Supporters of using the never-opened Wapato Jail to help the homeless made a last-ditch plea for public and private help on Thursday, Oct. 10.
Developer Jordan Schnitzer told reporters that he would begin demolishing the Wapato Jail in two weeks unless elected officials, private businesses and nonprofit organizations commit to funding a residential homeless service center there. Schnitzer purchased the jail.
"It sickens me to think about demolishing it," said Jordan, whose company, Harsch Investment Properties, has so far invested around $7 million in the facility. He presented diagrams of a large warehouse called the Bybee Lake Commerce Center that would be built on the north Portland site.
Kay Toran, president of the nonprofit Volunteers of America social service organization, presented a 25-page plan her organization drafted to turn the facility into the Community Wellness Center. Toran said it could provide housing, food, medical services, and alcohol and drug treatment to hundreds of people at a time.
Such a center could cost up to $10 million a year to operate. Schnitzer said he would donate the facility to VOA if such funds could be raised. "I will not give up on this vision until I know it can't happen," Toran told reporters at a press conference held inside the facility on industrial property.
Also speaking in support of such a project was Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner, developer and homeless advocate Homer Williams, former Portland Development Commission director and homeless advocate Don Mazziotti, and Jeff Geisler, chairman of the Hayden Island Neighborhood Network, a nearby neighborhood association
Most of them had appeared in 10-minute video that was recently posted online to generate support for the project. The idea of using the former jail as a center for homeles people has been strongly resisted by Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and most other homeless organizations. They denounced "warehousing" the homeless and criticized President Donald Trump for demanding California cities clear the homeless from their streets.
Kafoury and other county leaders have opposed using Wapato for the homeless in part because it far from existing homeless service agencies, many of which are concentrated in the Old Town area. The county recently purchased a vacant downtown building for a similar purpose and is in the process of finding funds to convert it.
After the press conference, the county issued a statement which said in part, "We're glad that Jordan Schnitzer has reached the conclusion that he can't afford to warehouse people in this remote jail. For us, it was never about the cost alone. Our community, our homeless service providers, business leaders like Business for a Better Portland, and most critically, people with lived experience, have told us it's the wrong building in the wrong place."
Turner and Mazziotti dispute charactering the Wapato proposal as "warehousing" the homeless. They said it was intended to rehabilitate people.
As pointed out in the video, county voters approved a $58 million bond measure to build the facility, which was designed to house up to 500 inmates while providing drug and alcohol treatment services. But it was never opened and the county sold it last year for $5 million to a developer who promptly sold it to Schnitzer.
Williams' has founded a nonprofit homeless organization called Oregon Harbor of Hope. It recently completed construction of a homeless shelter and navigation center near the southern end of the Broadway Bridge. Mazziotti is a director. The county and Portland are paying its annual operating expenses.
In its statement, the county also invited Williams' organization to support its planned Downtown Behavioral Health Resource Center.
Readers can see the video here.
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