Why Not Wapato?

Let’s talk about Wapato Correctional Facility. Every day I have yet another conversation about the never-used jail located in north Portland. I’ve had a dozen of these since I started the campaign, and dozens more before I decided to run. Like many people in Portland, I cannot understand how we can declare a state of emergency on homelessness, then not utilize an empty 525-bed facility that is just standing there empty.

Wapato Correctional Facility was built in 2004 at a cost of $58 million but never opened. It is owned by Multnomah County which spends over half a million dollars every year just to maintain it. It has medical and dental facilities, food service capabilities, and sits on 18 acre grounds.

Late last year, under pressure from the public to provide answers, the County released a report about the use of Wapato as a shelter. In that report, the County identified five reasons that Wapato could not be used as an emergency shelter for over 500 people – by city estimates, what would be over one-quarter of the people living on the streets.

Their answers aren’t good enough.

Here are excerpts from the letter issued by the county.

  1. Financing restrictions

    Because Wapato was built with tax-exempt bonds, the county can’t enter into a long-term lease with any non-governmental entity while the bonds are being paid off. Clearing this hurdle is necessary to consider any kind of shelter use for Wapato. Disposing of the state bonds would cost roughly $5 million and would require state action.

What is preventing the county from running the shelter facility themselves or contracting services from a non-government agency to provide the services without actually entering into a leasing agreement?

  1. Initial Capital Costs

    If the capital were raised to dispose of the outstanding debt, the facility would require
    significant investment to bring online. Commissioning and replacement of identified systems approaching life-cycle is estimated to be at least $5 million in 2015, these costs will continue to increase annually as systems age. The $5 million does not address the capital costs necessary to meet current requirements for operating an efficient homeless facility.

First, the county should be chastised for allowing systems to be “end of life” in a facility that has never been used. The half a million dollars that is used to maintain the facility is obviously not being well spent if it’s not actually being maintained. The county should be required at this point to provide complete documentation and estimates of what capital costs would be necessary.

  1. Operation

    Using the flexible public-private partnership model that the county and city currently use to provide shelter beds, a 100-bed shelter costs roughly $700,000 each year to operate. Non – profit providers ensure the shelter is staffed around the clock and provide basic safety and services. Because of the size of the facility — built as a 525-bed jail, operating a shelter at that scale would require significant ongoing resources.

Yes, running a 525-bed facility would take resources, but not as many resources as fully staffing five 100-bed shelters, or ten 50-bed shelters. There is such a thing as economy of scale. In addition, having adequate services on site would alleviate the burden of services in the downtown area.

  1. Incompatible with nearby businesses

    Housing a shelter of any size at the Wapato site is prohibited by city of Portland code. Even if that land use hurdle were somehow overcome, the site poses significant operational challenges. Overcoming these challenges would pose significant upfront and ongoing costs to taxpayers. Nearby businesses would need a shelter operator to develop a transportation management plan to ensure that their industrial uses of the street grid (logistics, shipping, etc.) didn’t consistently come into conflict with a surge in pedestrian traffic generated by a shelter. In addition, there would need to be outreach to local Neighborhood Associations.

This same argument could have been used for the Armory that was pressed into service as a women’s shelter over the winter. If the city were actually committed to providing shelter for the homeless, the city could change the code. And a transportation management plan? This was worked out with a shuttle service for the Armory. “In addition, there would need to be outreach to local Neighborhood Associations.” The fact that this sentence is included as a barrier to use is insulting to the residents all over Portland who work hard to stay engaged through their neighborhood associations. Outreach to the public is a fundamental part of governing and should never be seen as a barrier to a solution.

  1. Accessibility

    Getting to Wapato without a car is difficult. Wapato is located in an industrial park northwest of the Saint Johns neighborhood that is a combined one hour transit ride and three-quarter mile walk from Portland’s downtown core. The bus that travels closest to Wapato doesn’t run on the weekend. Additionally, Wapato is 22 miles from downtown Gresham, a community that is seeing an increase in homelessness. Transit and transportation improvements to overcome these challenges would take time and significant investment. 

Again, the Armory was not convenient to Gresham, and yet was used as a shelter over the winter. Transportation was provided by shuttle, and I simply cannot buy that the city does not have enough influence with Trimet to get additional bus service to Wapato. But if the issues is about access to services, then bring the services to Wapato. Create volunteer opportunities for local doctors, nurses, dentists, mental health providers. Use the resources of the PDC to offer no-interest loans to want-to-be food cart operators who could set up a pod on the 18 acres that the prison sits on. In the world of mobile everything, instead of working to get people back to town, let’s bring services to the people and create jobs and job training while we do it.

Ultimately, most of us are suspicious that the city and county are leery of using Wapato to simply avoid the appearance of criminalizing homelessness. In this creative, compassionate city there are plenty of artists who could transform the space into an energetic, positive, safe place.

As Mayor Charlie Hales loves to say, we have three choices: “Do this. Do nothing. Or do something else.” Doing nothing is not an option. We have thousands of people sleeping on the streets each night, including children, and nothing our local government has done in the past 12 years has worked. So unless they have a better, more immediate answer, it’s time to take down the barbed wire, hang some curtains, paint a mural, and let’s get on with housing the most vulnerable residents of our city at Wapato.