City of Roses or City of Homeless? Portland’s human tragedy

Is Portland Over?

Editor’s note: This is part four of an ongoing series this week through May 17 looking into issues the City of Portland faces. Click here for the full series, send us your comments to isportlandover@koin.com and tune in Monday, May 17 at 7 p.m. for our hourlong special.

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland has struggled and failed to solve its homeless problem.

Three years ago, people and agencies working with the homeless urged commissioners to convert the former Wapato Jail into a shelter. Multnomah County leaders refused and, led by Chair Deborah Kafoury, voted to sell the 500-bed facility to a private developer.

“It’s too expensive, it’s too far from services. There’s no transportation and the land use policies don’t allow it,” Kafoury said in 2018.

Kafoury was proven wrong. Developer and philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer eventually bought the building and turned it into the Bybee Lakes Hope Center. The facility gives homeless men and women the chance to turn their lives around by working and giving back to the community.

Frontline homeless workers couldn’t understand the county’s decision in 2018.

The former Wapato Jail. (KOIN)

“I saw Wapato as an economic engine to address a major problem here and people didn’t want to do it, they made all kinds of excuses,” said Greg Baker, then-leader of Portland’s Blanchet House.

It’s too far from services? Homeless camped in tents and RVs now live within a stone’s throw of the building. There’s no transportation? Trimet donated two used buses to help out. It’s too expensive? The same year county commissioners rejected the Wapato site, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a former strip club to house homeless families. The facility was unsanitary and it had structural problems. The county had to relocate 110 parents and children to other shelters when the building’s roof collapsed.

“That’s what upsets a lot of business people and people outside of government — they think they’re still wasting opportunities for political reasons and that’s never good,” said developer Homer Williams in 2018.

Williams made his money as a developer. He’s now dedicated his time and money to solving the city’s homeless crisis. When the county rejected his plan to turn Wapato into a homeless shelter, Williams designed his own ambitious plan: Harbor of Hope. The organization provides essential services to the homeless and helps point people toward care, jobs and permanent housing.

Harbor of Hope is modeled after a successful program in San Diego called Alpha Project which helps the homeless get registered, assessed and evaluated with health and social services.

“People have 120 days — everybody here is mandated to work with a case manager or housing navigator,” said Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy.

Hundreds of residents are also given paid jobs, such as cleaning up city streets, sidewalks and roadways.

“We literally had hundreds and hundreds of people in tents and tarp towns as Skid Row does living in squalor,” said McElroy. “People ask me all the time ‘why is this place so clean?’ Now people have hope. When you’re out there in the squalor, who gives a damn where I put my trash.”

For years, Portland has been reluctant to adopt successful homeless programs from other cities like San Diego, Austin and San Antonio. But now things are changing.

“We are being innovative, we’re listening to what other people are doing around the country,” said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. “And the best ideas, we’re putting them into place right here.”

Beds inside the Alpha Project in San Diego, that city’s effort to get homeless people off the streets and back on their feet, April 2018 (KOIN)

Portland’s Harbor of Hope is small compared to the scale of San Diego’s transition center but Williams wants to expand Harbor of Hope facilities across Portland. He has plans for managed homeless communities that would serve as a step between shelters and apartments where people can use common facilities like kitchens. Williams believes getting people off the streets and into shelters as quickly as possible is crucial because Portland’s old plan to focus only on permanent housing has contributed to the problem.

“We cannot build our way out of this, we are not efficient at building affordable housing,” said Williams. “Number one, it takes way too long and it takes way too much money to build our way out of this and we don’t have it so we are interested in only things that can scale, and by that I mean deal with the magnitude of the problem in big ways.”

Wheeler is a strong supporter of Harbor of Hope and Williams’ other ambitious plans. In 2018, Wheeler liked the idea of turning Wapato into a homeless shelter.

“This is a democracy and I am in a weak mayor form of government. You know, I have 20% of the votes on the city council and when it comes to issues like homelessness it’s not just the city,” Wheeler said. “It’s the county, it’s the Metro government, it’s the state government.”

Portland now faces a homeless disaster partly due to politics and lost opportunities.

KOIN 6 News recently asked Kafoury if she would change her mind on Wapato if she had the chance to start over. She replied, “Kudos to Jordan Schnitzer and the folks at Bybee Lakes who’ve been able to re-envision that building into something useful. It wasn’t going to work for the county.”

It didn’t work for the county but it’s working for the homeless men and women who now have a place to stay.

“I’m a bit of an outlier because I believe that we have an obligation to take resources today and have a FEMA-like response to getting as many people as quickly and humanely as possible off the streets and into alternatives,” Wheeler said.

Those who live in the metro area agree and are willing to pay for it. In 2020, voters in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties approved a tax aimed directly at the homeless problem.

FILE: A homeless camper on a Portland sidewalk. (KOIN)

“There’ll be $100 million a year more coming into the city through the county for the purpose of connecting people to mental health or substance abuse or other types of issues so that, along with our ongoing efforts to increase the amount of shelter place space and alternatives to people living on the sidewalk or living in public right-of-ways — all those things are now in a position to come together and make a difference,” said Wheeler.

It’s now up to community members to watch how their money is used in solving the homeless crisis; to make sure it’s being used effectively and to hold leaders accountable.

“They are our daughters or sons, our uncles, our cousins — that’s who they are. They’re not just nameless people,” said Baker. “They do have names, they belong to people.”

We want to hear from you. Send us your comments to isportlandover@koin.com and tune Monday, May 17 for an hour-long special at 7 p.m.

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