Hundreds turn out Saturday morning to show their support for coverting the former Wapato Jail to a residential treatment center for the homeless

PMG PHOTO: JIM REDDEN - Helping Hands founder Alan Evans talks with a supporter at a crowded open house at the former never-used Wapato JailHundreds of people showed up at the former Wapato Jail to show their support for opening it as the Bybee Lake Hope Center on the morning Saturday, Jan. 25.

The open house was held by Helping Hands, a nonprofit organization that operate already operates 11 emergency shelters and reentry programs for the homeless in Clatsop, Tillamook, Yamhill and Lincoln counties. Founder Alan Evans is working with philanthropist and developer Jordan Schnitzer, who bought the never-used Multnomah County facility in 2018, to repurpose it as a residential treatment and transition center, with on-site services.

"This is the right place to bring all the resources together," said Evans, who praised the building's large dormitories, industrial-size kitchen, medical rooms and offices.

Evans, who was homeless himself before starting his organization, told a packed conference room that $2.5 million has been raised for the conversion in just one month — more than half the two-year budget of $4 million that Schnitzer wants in hand before moving forward with the project.

"We will now starting cleaning up the outside and inside of the facility, and start on the changes that will make it a welcoming and supportive place," said Evan.

Diane Dennis, a nurse, said she was drawn to the project because of the possibility of helping the homeless heal and reenter society.

"Everyone who is homeless has a broken dream. If we can restore that dream, we can make a difference in their lives," said Dennis.

As described, Bybee Lakes initially would 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 leave another six dorms empty, which could be dedicated to detox, mental health, job training or other specific needs down the line.

The open house also served to introduce the existing board of directors of Helping Hands and a newly-formed Portland-area advisory committee for the project. Most of the board members are officials on the Oregon Coast, while the committee is compromised of community members in the area. The best known state Sen. Betsy Johnson, a Democrat from Scappoose, who co-chairs the Oregon Legislature's powerful budget-writing Ways and Means Committee.

Also on the committee is developer Homer Williams, founder of the Oregon Harbor of Hope, which built the recently-opened navigation center and homeless shelter in the Old Town/China Town area.

PMG PHOTO: JIM REDDEN - One of many rendering of what the Bybee Lake Hope Center will look like contributed to the project by architect Stuart Emmons.

Among those watching the presentation was architect and former Portland City Council candidate Stuart Emmons, who has contributed renderings of how the renovated Bybee Lake Hope Center would look to the project.

Those in attendance were enthusiastic about Evan's vision. After his finished his presentation, a woman in the crowd said she would donate $100 on the spot if 10 other people did not. More than a dozen hands immediately shot up.

Wapato cost more than $50 million to build but never opened because of budget constrictions. The Multnomah County Commission repeated rejected pleas to open it for the homeless, arguing it was located to far away from existing services in North Portland. Instead, Chair Deborah Kafoury and the board have purchased the vacant Bushong Building at 333 S.W. Park Ave. for a housing and a treatment center. The proeject is estimated to cost $25 million and the county is seeking $12.5 million from the 2020 Oregon Legislature, which convenes on Feb. 3. The request must be approved by the same Ways and Means Committee that Johnson co-chairs.

Many obstacles must still be overcome for the project to be completed, including permitting. But Evan was positive it will happen.

"When people our broken, the one thing they hold onto is hope. This is where we will restore that," said Evans, who wore a t-shirt that said, "I Believe."

Reporter Zane Sparling contributed to this story.

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