PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — More than 200 homeless men and women will take shelter in the longtime Multnomah Sheriff’s headquarters building later this month as a result of unusual cooperation between the county and the city of Portland.
For months, officials with a joint city-county homelessness effort have looked at under-used government buildings as well as privately owned sites with a goal of finding temporary shelter space for 267 men and women housed in a downtown shelter that’s closing July 22.
The final part of the effort came together over the last week with an agreement to move public employees from two partially occupied government buildings into one — making way for a shelter at the Hansen Building, a yellowish-beige decrepit hulk of a building built 60 years ago and has been home to the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.
Chair Deborah Kafoury has been spearheading the effort to tackle what officials last year formally recognized as a crisis. She credits sheriff’s personnel, Mayor Charlie Hales and the Portland Police Bureau for making the new shelter happen — and happen fast. “I think it shows that everybody in our community wants to do something,” she says. “They want to do their part.”
The Sheriff’s Office had already been phasing out of the building while looking for a new headquarters, but accelerated their push in light of the sudden need. “We’re compressing what would normally be a nine-month process into three weeks,” says Chief Deputy Jason Gates, who heads the sheriff’s law enforcement division.
Most of the roughly 40 sheriff’s employees based at Hansen will move to the city’s former Southeast Precinct building at East Burnside Street and 47th Avenue, which is partially occupied by the Portland Police Bureau. The county will lease a portion of the building for two years, with the option of extending it for two more years. The Sheriff’s Office plans to buy or build a new headquarters by 2019.Opposition letter from other Commissioners
Mold and other problems
Gates gave a tour of the Hansen Building Thursday at the request of Commissioners Diane McKeel and Loretta Smith, as well as McKeel’s chief of staff, Eric Zimmerman, who is running for the county board. They wanted to learn more about the plans.
It soon became clear why the sheriff’s office has no problem leaving Hansen behind. Yellow and black warning signs are posted on pipes wrapped in asbestos insulation. More asbestos is hidden in the floor and ceiling tiles.
“It smells like mold in here,” said Smith.
“There’s all kinds of mystery smells in here,” said Gates.
The building has black mold, but it’s been encapsulated by an impermeable barrier for safety reasons, just like the asbestos pipe insulation that has been wrapped in protective tape, Gates said. Until a few months ago there were swarms of thousands of sewer flies roaming the basement, but they’ve been walled off.
The building lacks central heating and air conditioning, and has fire sprinklers only in the basement. The water in certain faucets runs brown for a couple of minutes when you first turn it on, and bears high bacteria counts — but it is considered safe once the water has been running, Gates says.
After the tour, McKeel, Smith and Zimmerman say they are not wild about the idea, raising concerns about fire safety and what seems like a lack of kitchen capacity and other amenities.
“This would not be my first choice,” Smith says. But, they note, the decision is being made by Kafoury, not the board.
Kafoury, for her part, says she knows there are concerns about the building, as well as neighbors worried about the impact of a large shelter.
“We understand that this has moved quickly,” Kafoury says. “We want to make sure we have a chance to talk to people who are worried.”
While the building is not ideal, she echoes homeless advocates who say it’s the best available. “Compared to some of the warehouses we’ve looked at for potential sites, this place is great,” she says.Public meeting set
The plan to use the Hansen building as a homeless shelter will be publicly announced at a 9 a.m. press conference on Wednesday.
The county will hold a public meeting to hear concerns from neighbors and discuss the shelter plans from 6:30-8 p.m. on Thursday July 7, at the Hansen Building, 12240 N.E. Glisan St.The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media affiliate.