Repurposed Wapato finally brings value to ill-fated site
As government boondoggles go, the saga of the Wapato Jail was epic — nearly $100 million in tax dollars expended without one night of actual use. After two decades of local officials trying to salvage a mere semblance of public good from that "investment," the people behind the Bybee Lakes Hope Center now promise to do far more than that.
They will use Wapato to help get homeless individuals off the streets. Along the way, they will test a new model for delivering services to the homeless. Residents of Multnomah County should be thrilled to see the money they poured into Wapato finally, finally being put to good use.
On Wednesday, Aug. 12, prominent local businessman Jordan Schnitzer and others announced the never-used jail will open as a homeless shelter in September, with an expansion of services to follow in a few months. Initially, the shelter will house 70 people, and a reentry program eventually will serve 228 people with essentials such as food, bed, bath, job training, rehabilitation and mental health counseling.
Wednesday's ceremony, which included a symbolic cutting of razor wire on the fence around the facility, marked just how far sheer determination can carry a concept — even in the face of persistent doubts. The notion of using the 525-bed Wapato Jail as a partial solution for the region's homelessness crisis has been discussed for years. But objections were unrelenting: The jail was too far from existing services for the homeless. There was no transportation to the site. It would be cruel to warehouse the homeless in a facility intended as a jail.
Schnitzer managed to acquire the site for $5 million in 2018. He showed extraordinary civic commitment and vision in choosing to use the property for the community's benefit, when he could have pursued corporate profit instead. He and others then proceeded to knock down the criticisms, one by one:
• They had to look outside the metro area to find a nonprofit organization for the homeless that wasn't tied into the existing system of providing services downtown. 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 — fit the bill and will deliver services at Wapato.
• They had to find a way to get public transportation to the remote area of North Portland, where Wapato is located. Last week, TriMet board Chair Bruce Warner stood next to Schnitzer and announced the agency would reroute a bus line to go directly to Wapato.
• As for warehousing the homeless, that's hardly the plan. For sure, the Bybee Lakes Hope Center represents a different approach to homelessness. Similar to Haven for Hope in San Antonio, it will bring services together in one location, offering a holistic solution to move people off the streets, into shelter, and toward permanent housing.
And on the topic of cruelty — that would be allowing people to camp next to polluted freeways on 100-degree August days, or 15-degree January nights. Offering an alternative is the exact opposite.
While Bybee Lakes Hope Center is a departure from the Portland area's traditional view of homeless services, it should complement — not compete with — other efforts to help those who find themselves without shelter. On any given night, thousands of people in the Portland area are homeless. The problem is so pervasive — as any observant local resident can attest — that every possible solution should be employed.
Because Bybee Lakes will operate in a different manner, it won't plug into existing social-service revenue streams managed by Multnomah County. Helping Hands already has raised about $4 million in start-up and operating expenses, and is looking to raise another $3.5 million (more information can be found at helpinghandsreentry.org). Over time, we hope the county and other homeless service providers will realize the value of Bybee Lakes and welcome the facility into a regional system.
For now, Multnomah County taxpayers can take comfort in knowing that — thanks to those behind Bybee Lakes — the nearly $100 million they spent to build, finance and maintain Wapato Jail hasn't gone completely to waste. A center for the homeless wasn't what voters had in mind when they approved bonds for a jail in 1996, but the needs of the county have changed.
Now — 24 years later — the persistent issue of homelessness, especially in the midst of a pandemic, demands not just attention, but new approaches and partnerships. Bybee Lakes Hope Center, with a healthy push from the private sector, will add capacity to a system that needs all the resources it can get.
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