Oregon’s largest homeless shelter has won a reprieve and will remain open — at least until the end of the year.
The Bybee Lakes Hope Center, which is housed at the old Wapato Jail site in North Portland, threatened closure this week saying it didn’t have the money to continue.
But now, Multnomah County has provided $1.5 million to keep it open on one condition: that Bybee Lakes open its books for a third-party financial review.
Back in 2020, the Bybee Lakes Hope Center was the talk of the town. After years standing empty, the old Wapato Jail site was going to be used to house homeless people, even though it’s 11 miles away from downtown Portland and the fact some people didn’t like the idea of putting unhoused people in a jail.
The shelter was to be run by Alan Evans, a man who’d been homeless for 27 years. He’s head of the nonprofit Helping Hands, which operates four other homeless shelters around Oregon.
Evans says Bybee Lakes operates 175 beds and has helped thousands of people get off the streets, “We’ve served over 2,200 people at Bybee Lakes Help Center since we opened our doors in 2020.”
While that’s welcome news to people experiencing homelessness in Portland, Evans has not fully opened his financial records for government perusal. And that’s been a sticking point for collecting public funds.
For years, Multnomah County wouldn’t put money towards a homeless shelter at Wapato because it’s so far away from public services. And it’s expensive to operate.
Bybee Lakes is also largely a high-barrier shelter, meaning people must be sober to get a bed, take life classes on how to manage money; as well as volunteer and pay rent of about $250 a month. The facility also helps people find housing and stay sober through recovery classes. People who test positive for drugs or alcohol are kicked out of the facility.
For years, Evans said that he wouldn’t take public money. But in April 2021 the project received $2 million from the state. Since then he has also received $1 million from the federal government as part of the recovery act and will now get help from Multnomah County, “It didn’t take us long to realize that long-term sustainability in the community was not going to happen without a partnership with the counties and with the state and with the city,” he said.
Evans said that to start with, there was lots of private money to open Bybee Lakes, largely because of the infamous nature of Wapato. It was built in 2004 at a cost of $58 million dollars. But it never opened because it was so expensive to run.
But once Bybee Lakes opened, private interest waned and this year Evans said they only collected enough to keep the doors open until Friday, September 9th.
But now, after a month of intense negotiations, Multnomah County has agreed to give Helping Hands $1.5 million to keep the doors open until December 31st.
County chairwoman, Jessica Vega Pederson, has heard Bybee’s success stories, but wants a third-party, independent financial review, to make sure the county knows exactly where taxpayer money is going.
“We don’t fund entities. We don’t write blank checks to organizations,” Vega Pederson said. “We sign checks for services and for programs that our community needs. So the goal is to get Helping Hands, Bybee Lakes, into that.”
Months before Bybee Lakes opened, metro voters approved a new income tax to raise money for homeless services. Now the county is sitting on a massive pile of cash and has struggled to spend it quickly.
The drum beat started growing — even among county officials once opposed to the project — to direct some of that stockpile toward Bybee Lakes.
Vega Pederson thinks a financial assessment will make sure Bybee Lakes stays open well into the future, “For me, this is about making sure that every shelter bed that we have, which are so valuable, we’re able to keep those,” she said.
For his part, Helping Hands founder Alan Evans said he’s fine with financial oversight, “We welcome the third-party evaluation,” Evans said.
“We’ve done this for less money than anybody else has been able to do it for. And that’s what the evaluation is going to find out.”
Jordan Schnitzer, one of Oregon’s wealthiest residents, bought the Wapato Jail for $5 million in 2019. He’s leasing it to Helping Hands for one dollar a year.
He gave OPB a three-page financial summary that he’d receive from Helping Hands for the 2023/24 operating year.
It shows the cost of serving one resident at Bybee Lakes is about $49 a day. That’s substantially higher than the nonprofit’s other shelters. For example, in Clatsop County it’s $29 a day and in Yamhill County it’s just $11 a day.
Schnitzer said he’s been impressed by Bybee Lakes, “I frankly am delighted that they’ve been as successful as they’ve been.”
But the document Schnitzer shared with OPB didn’t include data on how successful the center has been in helping unhoused people land housing.
As far as Helping Hands now needing public funds, Schnitzer said that when voters approved Metro’s Supportive Housing Service tax, private donors started paying the tax rather than donating.
“When the homeless tax was enacted a year ago, it caused a dramatic drop in the private sector funding of Bybee Lakes,” Schnitzer said.
After a slow rollout in spending the supportive tax dollars, the county is ramping up its distribution.
In addition to Bybee Lakes, Multnomah County voted Thursday to invest more than $17 million in several different homeless projects, including 140 new sleeping pods and safe parking for people living in RVs.
Update: This story was updated to reflect that the project also received $2 million in financial support from the state in 2021.