Wednesday, September 26th, a room full of Portland residents consisting of neighborhood organizations, non-profits, and concerned citizens attended a meeting at the Police Union to discuss Portland’s current livability and homeless epidemic.
While opinions inevitably varied, almost all of the attendees agreed with the following:
- Portland is currently providing inadequate help, shelter, and services for those on the street who do not have shelter.
- The Portland Police Department being used as the first response for mental health and addiction issues is not an effective use of city or police resources.
- Current affordable housing is costly to build and inadequate for our current needs and it will not be a solution for all of those currently living on Portland’s streets.
Daryl Turner, President of the Portland Police Association – the union that represents the rank and file officers, sergeants, detectives, and criminalists of the Portland Police Bureau, explained the current gaps in the city’s ability to offer adequate services. He gave the following example. Have you called non-emergency for someone experiencing a mental health crisis? Assuming the person meets the criteria to be held for mental health services, all of his or her belongings are left behind. Most of the time the person is admitted and released within a matter of hours at Good Samaritan Hospital in NW Portland. In order to be released, all she has to do is indicate that she does not want to hurt herself or others. She is then let go outside of the hospital doors and into the elements. Many individuals are forced to walk back to their previous location, sometimes miles awhile and often in inclement weather. Once completing her arduous walk back, she finds out her belongings are gone. It is a no-win situation for the person needing help, for the police officers, or even for those with houses. It is a frustratingly sad story that is all too common. Portlanders need a better solution for help, shelter and services.
The elephant in the room, or at least in the City of Portland, was not ignored by Daryl, and instead, it was discussed in detail. Wapato Detention Center, built at a cost of 58 million in tax dollars 10 years ago, was never opened because the city lacked the funds to operate it. The property was sold by Multnomah County for 5 million earlier this year. Jordan Schnitzer, the current owner of the property, has offered the building and acreage to be used for homeless services and shelter; however, the land use permissions for this facility would have to be changed by elected officials.
The police union suggests the building, once intended as a detention center, becomes a restorative place of healing and hope. This vision would include a triage approach in which those who need services for addiction, mental illness or those displaced can receive the specific help and rehabilitation they need. Oregon Harbor of Hope, for example, has expressed the desire to provide services from this location. Early estimates and studies indicate that Wapato could be up and running for services in less than 90 days for 600 individuals. While costs are still being reviewed, some independent estimates show the facility could operate for less per person than the costs of other affordable housing solutions the city of Portland is implementing and currently proposing.
A Quick Look at Wapato’s facilities:
- Wapato, as a jail, was built and intended for individuals who had been given short sentences of no more than one year. It was intended for a minimum-security detention center and has an open campus environment. In simple terms, some experts feel it won’t look or feel like a jail once the cosmetic remodeling is completed.
- Wapato’s building is approximately 155,000 square feet and sits on 18 acres of land between Marine Drive and Lombard Avenue. One often mentioned barrier to using Wapato is the distance from services downtown. Wapato is on Marine Drive, only 1 mile further from downtown than Dignity Village.
- Additional buildings or homes on this land may be possible in the future. Another potential phase would add gardens and other recreational facilities –again, based on the assumption zoning is changed.
- 3 million dollars was spent in the Wapato kitchen alone.
- The facility has a medical and dental facility. There is an X-ray machine worth 60k.
- Land use restrictions currently prohibit using Wapato as a homeless shelter. Many have concluded the City of Portland’s state of emergency in the housing crisis could be extended to encourage the county to change current zoning of the Wapato facility.
In the last few months Executive Directors, city officials, and non-profits for shelters and homeless services have toured Wapato. Some of the attendees, who previously had been strongly opposed to the building being used for homeless services, changed their minds about Wapato after their tours. Many feel Wapato would be a viable positive restorative center for homeless services. Unfortunately, some are still opposed to Wapato being used for this purpose.
An open discussion followed at the meeting. Guest reactions to the facility were varied. Those opposed to Wapato being converted to a facility for homeless services included:
- Being homeless is not a crime and we should not be “locking up” those who are vulnerable.
- The facility itself could be traumatic for some who are homeless.
- The facility is too far away from other services and connections to community.
- The solution feels like a way for some Portlanders to remove the homeless out of their neighborhoods.
- The space feels institutional.
A couple of attendees also had suggestions worth mentioning for how the facility could be run and operated in way that would offer more compassion and workability:
- Allowing peer-based management of the facility – eventually allowing residents to help operate the facility.
- Allowing our houseless community to opt into requesting services at Wapato, rather than being forced to go.
- Utilizing the expertise and management of successfully run non-profits in the area to administer services at Wapato.
There were also many attendees supportive of Wapato’s new proposed use. Some of comments from these people included:
- A former homeless man who attended the meeting shared that shelters are commonly not well maintained, have poor living conditions, and many even smell of urine. He pointed out this facility is new and clean.
- An attendee who works at a local shelter in Portland admitted she once strongly opposed Wapato. She said after touring the facility she has had a complete change of heart and wanted to encourage others opposed to take a closer look.
As stated above, the main hurdle to use Wapato for this new purpose would include a Multnomah County variance on the land use permit. The city council of Portland can also make this request. If you want to support the use of Wapato for a restorative healing center for our homeless, make your desires known now! Our elected officials seem to be ignoring or dismissing the use of Wapato for homeless services and housing. Write to the mayor, city council, and your county commissioner about Wapato being re-zoned so the non-profits in the area can utilize the facility.
City of Portland Elected Officials
Mayor Ted Wheeler 503.823.4120 email@example.com
Commissioner Nick Fish 503.823.3589 firstname.lastname@example.org
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly 503.823.4682 email@example.com
Commissioner Amanda Fritz 503.823.3008 firstname.lastname@example.org
Commissioner Dan Saltzman 503.823.4151 email@example.com