We ran a report yesterday detailing the homeless crisis in Portland and how the community was stepping up. Last night, local elected officials inexplicably showed why the public has to step up.

As we reported, 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.

Now, that same leadership is upping the ante, blaming the Portland area homeless epidemic on the Trump Administration and local police (more on that a little later).

According to OregonLive.com, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and homeless service providers on Wednesday took aim at Trump administration plans to forcefully intervene in cities with large homeless populations by cracking down on camping and converting government buildings into shelters.

Speaking to reporters in the offices of Street Roots, the weekly newspaper sold by vendors who are homeless or living in poverty, Kafoury said the plans amount to “warehousing” the poor.

Speakers also obliquely tied the federal efforts to a local push to repurpose the vacant Wapato Jail, located in a remote part of North Portland, into a homeless shelter with hundreds of beds.

“These out-of-sight, out-of-mind, tactics are cruel, they’re immoral and ultimately, they don’t work,” Kafoury said.

What Kafoury is saying is that homeless people are better left on the streets to suffer than they are in a dry, cool (or warm in the winter) facility where they can reside until they get back on their feet.

Keep in mind that the Wapato facility can house hundreds in a safe environment. It has kitchen and dining facilities, medical and mental health capabilities, and showers/hygiene accessibility.

All things most people on the street do not have immediate access to. 

The White House currently has its gaze fixed on addressing homelessness in California’s largest cities by repurposing government-owned facilities as shelters, The Washington Post reported this monthciting administration officials.

The Post reported that President Trump, who has repeatedly criticized the city’s Democratic leaders over homelessness, personally ordered the initiative.

The President has also enlisted the assistance of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue a violation to the city of San Francisco over homelessness-related issues, citing waste and syringes swept into the ocean through storm drains. City officials there say such problems don’t exist, and that any debris is removed at wastewater treatment plants.

OregonLive also reported that the Wapato Jail plan, seemingly stalled for a year, recently reasserted itselfwith the apparent backing of local developers, Portland’s rank-and-file police union and the nonprofit Volunteers of America Oregon.

It is not clear why the report distinguished the difference between police leadership and the ‘rank-and-file’ officers.

Kafoury, not directly referencing Wapato, said funds have been put to better use. For example, she said, local housing funds subsidize permanent housing placements for 12,000 people who might otherwise be homeless.

“There’s not a warehouse or jail nearby who can house that many people, let alone house them successfully,” she said. “I’m not willing to kick thousands of people out of their homes so that we can round up and whisk away a few hundred people from downtown for the sake of satisfying the rich and the powerful.”

Street Roots Executive Director Kaia Sand said private sector overtures that offer facilities but require ongoing funding could divert money from other solutions, including supportive services intended to help formerly homeless people from returning to the streets.

“This is about disappearing homelessness, not solving it,” she said.

Here is where the local law enforcement agencies get thrown under the bus. Sand also criticized law enforcement crackdowns on homelessness. Street Roots has promoted a Portland Street Response program that would offer an alternative to police for responding to low-level 911 calls involving homelessness issues.

“We know unhoused people are arrested too much and that drives people further into poverty with fines and fees,” she said. “Policing people who are unhoused is exactly the wrong direction.”

Ah yes, the old “homeless people can’t afford to pay for their crimes, so they should be allowed to do whatever they want with no fear of arrest and incarceration” argument.

An analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive last year found that more than half of all arrests made by the Portland Police Bureau in 2017 were of a homeless person, a figure that’s dramatically disproportionate to Portland’s homeless population, which is estimated to make up no more than 3% of the population.

The majority of the arrests, 86 percent, were for non-violent crimes, the analysis found. And more than 1,200 arrests were solely for offenses that are typically procedural — missing court or violating probation or parole.

George McCarthy, a Street Roots vendor, also responded to the call to turn Wapato Jail into a shelter, saying it reinforces stereotypes and that a jail wouldn’t feel like a home.

“Honestly, I’m tired being associated with jail,” he said. “You don’t need the public perception to constantly stick you in a jail.”

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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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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