Multnomah County Commission Chair Deborah Kafoury is proposing to spend $150 million next fiscal year to reduce homelessness, including creating more shelter capacity and supportive services. That does not yet include any funding for the county's former unused Wapato Jail, which is currently sheltering and serving the homeless, even as it is still being transformed into the Bybee Lakes Hope Center.
The remote North Portland facility opened last October with 76 shelter beds and 56 residential treatment beds. An additional 220 beds are under construction, along with medical facilities, an industrial-strength laundry, a covered kennel and a Victory Garden that includes 120 fruit trees. All of the work and operational costs have so far been paid by private donors and grants that support the vision local developer and philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer had for the property when he arranged to purchase it from the county three years ago.
The clean-and-sober facility is operated by Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers, a non-profit organization that operates 11 homeless shelters and reentry programs in Clatsop, Tillamook, Yamhill and Lincoln counties. It was founded Alan Evans, who was homeless for many years himself.
"We are grateful to Mr. Jordan for giving some knuckleheads like us the opportunity," Evans told the Portland Tribune during a recent tour of work that had been done and is underway. "We are facing a homeless crisis that will only get worse unless we all work together. A Portland State University study predicts 90,000 people could be evicted when the eviction moratorium ends."
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, only half the current beds can be used to maintain social distancing. Evans said he expects that to ease when the residential clients are vaccinated, as the staff already is. He also said he hopes most, if not all, of the additional beds can be used when they come on line in September. A Rainbow dorm for LBGTQ community members is also planned,
Big changes, early success
Evans said nearly 200 people already have completed the reentry program that lasts about three months, a number that will increase quickly when the operation reaches its full potential.
"So far this has been the perfect location for COVID. All of the surface are flat and hard and easy to clean. We haven't had a single case," Evans said.
According to Evans and Facility Director Jeff Woodward, the center accepts referrals from 55 agencies. Clients stay in the shelter beds for two weeks and then must decide whether to enter the residential treatment program. Woodward said that gives both parties enough time to decide if they can work together successfully.
So far, he said, more that 65% have stayed.
"They repeatedly say the remoteness helps. They are not surrounded by triggers and drug dealers. They are surrounded by bald eagles and peace and calm," Woodward said.
Although 56 people were staying at the center during the April 23 tour for the Tribune, none were apparent. That was because all of the men staying in the ground floor dorms had been hired and were working at nearby businesses, including Columbia Sportwear, where wages start at $18 per hour plus benefits.
Their possessions, including guitars and clothing, were neatly arranged by their beds. Women and children were living upstairs, which was off limits to the media.
Although much work remains to be done, the changes already were dramatic. High-speed Wi-Fi is available everywhere. The high exterior fence topped with barbed wire had been removed. A tall cinderblock barrier was coming down to open up a parking lot being transformed into a basketball court. The doors had been removed from the three holding cells in the former lobby, which are being remodeled as stores for the clients staying there. A new visiting area is being created for family members and friends. The walls are being painted brighter colors. Beds in the dorms are surrounded by curtains, and small offices have been turned into private bedrooms for clients who take jobs there. Conference, class, dining and relaxation rooms have been created.
And the former large wooden sign that announced the entrance to the jail has been turned into a coffee table.
"We call it the $100 million coffee table," said Evans, referring to approximately how much money the county spent on Wapato before selling it developer Marty Kehoe on April 19, 2018, for $5 million.
Kehoe promptly sold it to Schnitzer in a prearranged deal 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 state Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, who has supported his organization for year.
Evans said that, in addition to millions of dollars in donations, the business and community support for the center has been overwhelming. Local restaurants deliver so much food that two chefs have been hired to operate the large kitchen as part of a culinary arts program. A complete $100,000 dental chair has been donated by A-dec, which is owned by the Austin Family. An outdoor playground set of equal value also has been installed.
A public memorial to the homeless who have died in Multnomah County is under construction in front of the former jail. It will honor the 642 people identified in the county's annual Domicile Unknown reports from 2011 and 2019, and then will be updated with each new report. A public and hybrid dedication ceremony for both the memorial and Victory Garden is scheduled for May 27.
Major donors to date include Jordan Schnitzer, John Niemeyer, Joseph E. Weston Public Foundation, Joe Weston, Maybelle Clark Macdonald Fund, Oregon Community Foundation, Chip Shields, Samuel S. Johnson Foundation, Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, Betsy Johnson, Zidell Family Foundation, VetREST Oregon Chapter, the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs, Friends of Trees, UPS, Mark and Elissa Simonson, Playcraft Systems, Dave Jubitz, All Play Systems, and many more.
To learn more about the Bybee Lakes Hope Center and to make a donation, visit https://www.bybeelakeshopecenter.com.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.