Kitzhaber suggests Wapato Jail for COVID-19 patients


The former governor says Wapato could be used for both the homeless and COVID-19 victims

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has proposed using the former Wapato Jail to treat COVID-19 victims.

Kitzhaber, a former emergency room physician, made the proposal on his blog on Sunday, March 15. In a lengthy piece on how Oregon should respond to the coronavirus pandemic, Kitzhaber noted that private fundraising is currently underway to open three of the facility’s nine wings for the homeless.

“What would it take to use these wings to expand capacity for managing those with coronavirus who need inpatient care, but not ICU care? There is no reason why this capacity could not still be used for the original purpose once the pandemic is over and, indeed, some of the investments in the facility that would be needed in the short term might be an asset to the long-term goal around homelessness,” Kitzhaber wrote.

Owner Jordan Schnitzer told the Portland Tribune that he agrees and is trying to reach Kitzhaber. According to Schnitzer, because the wings can be isolated for one another, Wapato could be used for both the homeless and COVID-19 victims. 

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Schnitzer said he is also trying to reach Mayor Ted Wheeler about using Wapato as an emergency shelter while the nonprofit Helping Hands organization continues raising funds to turn it into a residential treatment center.

“It has nine wings that can be isolated, bathrooms, showers, a kitchen, medical facilities. It could be up and running in 10 days,” said Schnitzer.

Wheeler and Multnomah County — which operates the local public health system — did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Multnomah County built Wapato as a 525-bed medium-security jail and treatment center in North Portland more than a decade ago for $58 million. It never opened because the County Commission never funded its operation. County Chair Deborah Kafoury consistently opposed using Wapato for the homeless because it is far from existing social service.

Schnitzer says the remote location is a benefit for treating people with COVID-19.

Schnitzer bought Wapato for $5 million in April 2018. He has been trying ever since to open at least part of it for the homeless, finally partnering with Helping Hands, which operates a series of shelters outside of Multnomah County. The organization has so far raised more than $4 million to remodel and operate it as the Bybee Lake Hope Center. It has not yet scheduled an opening.

Read Kitzhaber’s blog: The Coronavirus in Oregon

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