Transformed Wapato marks year of helping homeless

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Former unused county jail is now operating as the nonprofit Bybee Lakes Hope Center in North Portland.

COURTESY KNOT DESIGN – A rendering of the planned redesign of the entrance of the former Multnomah County Wapato jail

PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — They said it wouldn’t be done. They said it couldn’t be done. They said it shouldn’t be done.

Nonetheless, one year after the Bybee Lakes Hope Center opened in North Portland, all of the money has been raised to transform the unused former Multnomah County Wapato Jail into a clean-and-sober homeless shelter and addiction recovery center. More than 500 homeless people have walked through its doors. More than 80 people are currently living there, including several families with children attending school. Half the clients are working at nearby businesses. Twenty-eight people are staffing it, most of them former clients. And 240 more beds are scheduled to come online within six months, supported by even more employees with lived experiences.

Evans credits Portland developer and philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer for the success of the project. The Multnomah County Commission repeatedly rebuffed proposals to open Wapato for the homeless, with Chair Deborah Kafoury taking the lead, arguing its location, along the edge of the Smith and Bybee Lakes Wetlands Natural Area, was too far from the existing social service agencies based in downtown. Schnitzer bought the property for $5 million in April 2018, a fraction of the approximately $100 million it had cost the county. He then spent a year trying to find an agency to operate it.

The low point hit in October 2019 when Schnitzer announced he would soon tear Wapato down if an operator could not be found. Multnomah County issued a statement that said, “We’re glad that Jordan Schnitzer has reached the conclusion that he can’t afford to warehouse people in this remote jail.”

COURTESY PHOTO: HELPING HANDS – Helping Hands Founder and CEO Alan Evans at the Bybee Lakes Hope Center playground, which provides a chance for the increasing number of children participants to play and relax.

But then state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) introduced Schnitzer to Evans, whose organization was already operating 11 homeless shelters and re-entry programs in Clatsop, Tillamook, Yamhill and Lincoln counties. Johnson has known Evans for years and served on his organization’s board.

Evans toured Wapato with Schnitzer and thought it was a huge challenge and a tremendous opportunity in a region with a rapidly-growing homeless population, as demonstrated by the growing number of tents on sidewalks and other public spaces. As a result, Schnitzer agreed to lease the facility to Evans’ organization for $1 per year for five years if it could raise around $3 million for construction and startup costs.

By the time the rechristened Bybee Lakes Hope Center opened on Oct. 2, 2020, the organization had raised around $4 million. Evans told the Portland Tribune last week they have now raised more than $5 million, enough to complete the remodeling and operate it for the foreseeable future.

Kafoury did not reply to a request for comment. She most recently talked about the center in a July 28 Willamette Week interview where she called it too expensive.

“I went out and visited Wapato — uh, Bybee Lakes [Hope Center] — and it reinforced my decision not to open it as a shelter that we run,” Kafoury said.

Although Johnson steered $2 million in state funds to the project, the rest has come from private and nonprofit donations. None of the funds have come from the Joint Office of Homeless Services, funded by Multnomah County and the city of Portland. That gives Evans the freedom to say things that service providers dependent on joint office funds might not. For example, he deplores the fact that no comprehensive homeless count has been conducted since 2019, when 4,015 people met the official federal definition of homelessness, even though the increase in outdoor camping has been obvious since then. 

And Evans predicts the numbers will only increase, especially with the end of the eviction moratorium.

“The homeless population is increasing every year. What they’ve been doing — and what they plan on doing — won’t reduce it. Homelessness is going to keep increasing unless we are willing to try something different,” Evans said.

If true, that will disappoint the voters in the tri-county region who have approved Portland and Metro affordable housing bonds and a Metro supportive services levy. The hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending may slow the increase in homelessness in part because it will help some low-income households stay in their homes. But only around 300 of the city’s 1,424 units are intended for the chronically homeless who need services to prevent them from returning to the streets. Metro is promising to connect 5,000 chronically homeless households with supportive housing, but the total won’t be reached until 2030.

Wapato Jail owner Jordan Schnitzer speaks at early press conference in support of using it to help the homeless. Behind him are (from Left): Hayden Island Neighborhood Network chair Jeff Geisler; Volunteers of America of Oregon President Kay Toran; and Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner. (PMG)

That will also disappoint the residents, businesses and organizations in the Old Town and Chinatown areas. So many of the homeless camps there are out of control that Scott Kerman, executive director of the Blanchet House social service agency, told Willamette Week he has heard the area referred to as “an open-air psychiatric ward.” Four nonprofit organizations, the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, the Lan Su Chinese Garden, the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and the Portland Chinatown Museum, wrote a letter to the Portland City Council and Multnomah County Commission asking for immediate help.

“We need to hear the city’s plans for adding police and combating rising crime and we need the county to step up and deploy mental health professionals and services to our neighborhood,” the letter said. Ironically, that is where Kafoury said the homeless are already being served.

In response to the letter, most local officials issued statements pointing to increased funding commitments. Mayor Ted Wheeler announced he will ask the council to increase homeless spending with city surplus funds in November.

Evans believes federal, state and local governments need to support a more comprehensive range of housing options and support services. He fully backs the managed Safe Rest Villages being pioneered by Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan, who is driven by the death of his homeless brother on Portland streets years ago. Although one of the first three proposed sites was withdrawn because it was in an unchecked flood zone, he praises Ryan for immediately admitting the mistake and promising to learn from it.

“When was the last time you heard a politician say that?” Evans asked.

Evans also believes new organizations like his need to be welcomed, not opposed.

“We need to do everything we can, and everyone should be at the table,” said Evans, who invites anyone to contact them and arrange a tour.

Portland Tribune is a media partner of KOIN 6 News.

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