Operators of the new Bybee Lakes Hope Center are promising to open 500 beds at the North Portland facility by December to help ease the homeless crisis.
Alan Evans, Founder & CEO of Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers, made the promise during a Friday, Oct. 2, press conference at the former never-used former Multnomah County Wapato Jail. Evans said 84 beds will be available next week, with the rest coming online by the end of the year.
"The homeless crisis is getting worse. We need to do more now," said Evans, who was a homeless ex-con drug addict before turning his life around and founding the nonprofit agency that already operates 11 homeless facilities in four mostly coastal counties.
Also speaking at the press conference was Mayor Ted Wheeler, who praised Evans' organization for taking an innovative approach to helping the homeless by offering all services in a single residential location.
"We have to think outside of the box. Maybe we have to burn the box down. We're making progress (on the homeless crisis), but it hasn't been good enough," said Wheeler, who has promised to open hundreds of additional shelter beds for the homeless before winter.
Wheeler also said the city of Portland stands ready to help Evans' organization overcome any problems it encounters in the future. Schnitzer is leasing the facility to Evans' organization for $1 per year for five years. Helping Hands has so far raised about $4 million in start-up and operating expenses.
Other speakers included developer and philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer, who bought the facility for $5 million in 2018. The 155,000-square-foot jail had originally been built for $58 million in 2004 but never opened after the Multnomah County Commission decided they could not afford to operate it.
"We're seeing the best of what this community has to offer," Schnitzer said of the private and nonprofit support that allowed the facility to open.
After buying the building, Schnitzer set out to find an operator who would open it as a homeless shelter and service center. A dozen local nonprofit organizations toured the building but could not figure out how to finance programs there. Then Oregon state Sen. Betsy Johnson introduced Schnitzer to Evans during a fundraising event. Johnson had known Evans for years and serves on his organization's board.
"This is the start of what is going to be a long, successful journey," said Johnson.
Other officials speaking at the opening were state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner-Hayward and state Rep. Lew Frederick, whose district includes the North Portland industrial district where the facility sits.
Dozens of other people attended the press conference, including officials with TriMet, which is providing new bus service to the facility, and Portland Public Schools, which will be teaching the children there. Multnomah County officials were conspicuous by their absence.
Services to be provided at the facility include food, bed, bath, job training, rehabilitation, mental health counseling, education and more. Referrals will be made by partnering agencies and nonprofits. Helping Hands is so far working with Union Gospel Mission, Portland Fire & Rescue, Harbor of Hope and the Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest.
Altogether, Multnomah County taxpayers paid more than $90 million for the Wapato Jail before it was sold for $5 million. In addition to the construction costs, the county also paid interest on the state and county bonds used to finance the facility, plus maintenance costs of around $500,000 per year. Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury strongly fought the idea of opening for the homeless before the sale, arguing it was too far away from existing services for the homeless.
Evans said it is unrealistic to expect people experiencing homelessness to track down all of the services they need at different locations, however. He said it is better to bring all the services to them at a single location.
Helping Hands is still seeking funds to help finance renovations that will include adding windows and doors, client laundry areas, playgrounds, community gardens, pet enclosures and more. Their website with more details and donation information can be found at helpinghandsreentry.org.
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