Portland Police: It doesn’t have to be the ER or jail for the homeless.


There is a homeless crisis in Portland, Oregon. Fortunately, people there have had enough of the lack of action from city and county leadership. The community is rising to do something about it.

A major source of frustration for people, in 2005, city leadership proposed a 10-year plan to reach zero-homelessness by moving people into affordable housing rather than temporary shelters.

For the past 14 years, the county has had a facility capable of providing accommodations for people on the street, 13 miles from downtown, where many homeless people stay, yet the city has done very little to curb the issue.

Taxpayers in Multnomah County, Oregon picked up the $58 million tab for the 150,000 square foot Wapato jail back in 2004. Sadly, the facility was never used. It was sold to developer Jordan Schnitzer last year for $5 million. County commissioners said that offloading the 18-acre property was the most cost-effective option, as the county was spending close to $50,000 a month in upkeep.

They have a viable facility. It is sitting empty and going to waste. Meanwhile, the Portland area has thousands of homeless people, creating a unique situation.

According to OregonLive.com, the jail is back in conversation as a potential homeless accommodation facility. A group, headed by Volunteers of America Oregon, which also includes the Portland police union president, nonprofit leaders, neighborhood activists and developers, is preparing to solicit funding to turn the never-occupied jail into a community wellness center that would provide shelter, mental health and addiction services.

Schnitzer said he bought the industrial property with plans to demolish the facility and build a warehouse. However, once he owned the jail, he put out a community call for ideas to use it for some good.

Schnitzer did stipulate a proposal must have funding attached to it.

He also indicated that he would not hold on to the building forever. He is still moving forward with contractors and his demolition permit.

That permit expired earlier this year. He has requested an extension from the city’s Bureau of Development Services.

He now has until Oct. 28 to demolish the facility or the permit will officially expire.

Enter Volunteers of America Oregonand the Portland Police Association. These two groups, along with Schnitzer and other community leaders, are calling for community involvement and support in turning the jail into a behavioral health services center for area homeless people.

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Portland Police: It doesn't have to be the ER or jail for the homeless.


Kay Toran, President and CEO of Volunteers of America is leading the coalition. She is advancing the efforts in conjunction with the Portland Police Association, the local police union. They have commissioned a videothat issues the call for community support.

The 10-minute segment was created by The Silent Partner Marketing agency, a Connecticut-based group, which specializes in videos for law enforcement groups.

Union President Daryl Turner said that the video is a conversation starter until a more formal announcement is made, one he thinks might come in early October.

The video has already begun to be shared publicly. A version was shown at the Volunteers of America Oregon gala in early September. According to Turner, it has also been shown to the Lents Neighborhood Association.

“Obviously they have a stake in wanting to help find a place where people are homeless, who have eviction issues, mental health issues, get the resources they need,” Turner said.

The video shows a cast of prominent critics of the public sector’s response to homelessness and nonprofit leaders.

Homer Williams and Don Mazzioti, with the nonprofit Harbor of Hope, appear in the segment.  Williams, a critic of the city’s previous attempts to address the homeless crisis, said he is supportive of the attempt to turn the jail into a community wellness center.

“The only way it’ll work is if it’s truly some kind of public-private,” Williams said in an interview. “There’s got to be some kind of private money brought into this.”

Angela Todd says that the terms “homeless” and “houseless” hides the many reasons people lose their housing and are unable to get new housing, other than unaffordable rent. She also stated that there should be more emphasis on figuring out those reasons.

Todd and Turner have previously discussed how the city might better handle calls about homeless people.

As part of the video, Turner said that police have nowhere to take someone in the midst of a mental health crisis late at night, except for the emergency room.

“We’re creating this vicious circle ourselves because we have no other resources,” he said. “We have no other outlets to be able to provide to people.”

Schnitzer echoed that sentiment, saying that city and county leaders lack vision for the facility.

“We need the leadership to help coalesce us and bring us together and show us how we can all work toward solving this problem,” Schnitzer said, “that’s what’s missing in this community now.”

The fact that the facility has sat empty and unused would indicate that public officials have no intentions to fund services at Wapato. 

“Despite years of exhaustive efforts, we found we didn’t need an old jail 14 miles from downtown,” Julie Sullivan-Springhetti, a county spokeswoman, said in a statement. “But we do need behavioral health resource centers near where people in crisis are already living, and we’re working on opening our first one in downtown Portland. We know that providing services to people in a convenient location with trusted peer mentors is the key to recovery and stability.”

Apparently, convenience is the most important factor for current leadership. They already have a building that has accommodations for so many. It has lodging, dining and kitchen facilities, medical intake and over 10,000 square feet of administrative space. While the facility would require slight renovations, it is practically ready to go.

Timothy Becker, spokesman for Portland mayor Ted Wheeler, said that Wheeler is interested in “supporting innovative ideas” around homelessness, and that he is open to hearing proposals regarding the Wapato unit. Wheeler has apparently entertained similar thoughts before, only to back out, sighting financial concerns.

“As you know, over the years, many calculations have been made about the facility, especially surrounding the operating costs and the sustainability of those costs. It would be fiscally unwise to fund a program that doesn’t have a long-term and sustainable plan,” Becker said. “The mayor has reached out to Jordan Schnitzer about his vision for Wapato and requested to see a statement of financial sources and uses. That statement should have a viable, actionable, financially sustainable plan. He will be convening a meeting soon with Jordan and all the key partners.”

Wapato cost $58 million to build. It has cost Multnomah taxpayers close to $10 million in upkeep. $68 million for a facility that was never occupied.  

Is is time for the leadership in the city to stop worrying about convenience or financial gains. It is time that the jail is put to use. There are people in Portland who need it desperately. 


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