Multnomah County's Wapato Jail has never been used as a jail facility, despite its $58 million price tag.

Wapato Jail in North Portland was completed in 2004. But county leaders never found the money to open it.

Kayo Lackey / OPB

Nearly two decades after the initial ribbon cutting ceremony, a repurposed Wapato Jail is poised to open its doors.

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The never-used facility is expected to officially open later this month as the Bybee Lakes Hope Center, a homeless shelter that will start off with 84 beds for short-term stays.

Alan Evans, the head of Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers, said the shelter plans to expand its offerings in December with 225 beds for longer-term stays and with programs to address mental health issues, addiction and abuse-related trauma.

It’s a day many thought would never come.

Until Evans entered the picture last winter, many believed real estate developer Jordan Schnitzer’s push to convert the never-used jail into a shelter would most likely end with the facility reduced to rubble.

“There were many in the community that said Wapato, wrong decision, wrong place, wrong building can’t help anyone,” Schnitzer said at a ribbon cutting ceremony Friday. “We’ve worked for two years to find a group that would take this amazing facility over and do what you’re about to see is going to happen next week.”

Since 2018, Schnitzer had been searching for a homeless service provider to turn the space into a homeless shelter. Interested providers said they couldn’t fund homeless services within the 155,400-square-foot space on their own – and the city and county were adamant they did not want taxpayer money going to a facility far from downtown’s cluster of social services. A frustrated Schnitzer vowed to sign a demolition contract last fall if no last-minute savior stepped in with a plan and the money to make it happen.

Soon after, Evans visited the facility to see if he could remove an industrial-sized refrigerator from Wapato for one of his shelters. The refrigerators were too large. But Evans saw potential and later decided he wanted the jail.

“I left here almost in tears with my kid because I didn’t grasp the concept of the politics and the bad blood that was behind this facility,” Evans said Friday. “I’m going, ‘What the hell is wrong with Portland?’”

Evans spent three decades in and out of homelessness, before starting a homeless service nonprofit based on the Oregon coast. Helping Hands has a reputation for not taking restriction-heavy federal and state money, and Evans has promised Bybee Lakes can be privately financed. He said he’s secured about $5 million through private donations and expect the annual operating budget to be $1.2 million.

It’s a shoestring budget compared with past estimates of what it will take to provide services in the facility.

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Multnomah County leaders infamously spent $58 million of taxpayer funds to build Wapato, but couldn’t afford to operate it as a jail. Volunteers of America, which was interested in the space after the county sold it to the private sector, said they’d need $18 million to get “community wellness center” going in the space..

Evans was also contending with serious questions over whether the facility, zoned for industrial use, could be used for a permanent shelter. At some point, Helping Hands would have likely needed to get permission to be permanently based at Wapato from the city of Portland, a tricky ask to make of a council whose members have called the project ill-informed and inappropriate on philosophical grounds.

But during a special legislative session this summer, the state took care of it. The Oregon Legislature passed a bill that requires cities to approve emergency shelters as long as they fulfill certain requirements.

“That changed everything,” Evans said.

TriMet has also agreed to route a bus to the isolated shelter, which is 12 miles from downtown. TriMet Board Chair Bruce Warner attended the ribbon-cutting Friday.

Supporters of the plan have said the space is a critical step to addressing the region’s homeless crises, which is predicted to worsen after the various COVID-19-related eviction moratoriums expire and renters must come up with months of backlogged rent.

“The fact is that I’m incredibly pleased to see this,” said Oregon state Sen. Lew Frederick, a Portland Democrat whose district includes the facility. “And I’m incredibly pleased because of a very simple fact: I left my house this morning and I walked towards the post office."

“In that period of time I saw six tents,” Frederick said. “These are folks I would like to be able to say, ‘Here’s an opportunity, here’s a place for you to go.’”

Frederick now sits on the advisory board for Bybee Lakes, along with Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, and Daryl Turner, the head of the union that represents rank-and-file Portland officers.

While Evans has taken care of old funding and zoning questions, new concerns have cropped up about his high-barrier shelter model. The organization has strict requirements for those who decide to stay long term, including a sobriety requirement. And some say what Portland is desperately in need of right now is not a high-barrier shelter but a housing-first approach, which prioritizes getting people into stable housing and then helping them address the reasons they became homeless..

“In a moment where the vast majority of us are facing grim financial projections, government entities included, it is ever more important that the laser-like focus from everyone continues to remain on permanent solutions for our neighbors,” Katrina Holland, the executive director of homeless services nonprofit JOIN, wrote in an email. “A vast body of research that demonstrates that housing-first approaches generate the best outcomes for our neighbors.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has largely stayed out of the debate on the controversial jail. But the mayor appeared at the grand opening Friday, throwing his support behind the project and thanking Evans and Schnitzer for taking on the conversion.

“We’re going to have to think outside the box,” said Wheeler, who had donned a Bybee Lakes facemask for the occasion. "I was just telling these good folks, maybe we have to burn the box. because what we’re doing right now – even though there’s great progress being made by the city and the county and our service providers – it’s not good enough. We know we can do better and you know we have to do better and we have to consider other ideas, other innovations.

“This center represents, I think, one of the finest.”

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Wapato Jail in North Portland was completed in 2004. It has sat empty ever since.

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His commercial real estate company, Harsch Investment Properties, announced this week it has rented the 155,400-square-foot space to homeless service provider Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers for five years. The nonprofit plans to convert the jail into a large service center for the region’s homeless population with programs to address mental health issues, addiction and abuse-related trauma.