Kayo Lackey/OPB

The Multnomah County Commission on Thursday discussed turning a jail that’s sat empty for a decade into a homeless shelter.

Wapato Jail is about 12 miles north of Portland, near Smith and Bybee lakes, in the district of Commissioner Lorretta Smith. Smith has pushed for the county to consider re-opening it as a homeless shelter.

“I was really encouraged by today’s forum. This was the first forum we have had on Wapato,” she said. 

The debate was largely symbolic: County Chair Deborah Kafoury opposes the idea and has enough votes on the commission to block it.

The county currently spends about $130,000 a year on utilities and maintenance for the empty Wapato building. It could house about 500 people.

Kafoury has said that it isn’t an acceptable place for the homeless, and that it would be too expensive to retrofit. Smith pushed back, and asked how much it would cost.

The answer: $953,000 to prepare the building — changing doors and other infrastructure to meet fire codes and the city’s standards for emergency shelter — plus additional costs for programs and operations once people move.

Any plan to attempt to convert the jail into a shelter would also trigger complicated legal issues.

The Port of Portland, which sold the county land for Wapato, imposed deed restrictions on the site. As a result, the county would have to seek approval from the port for a Wapato shelter. The site, which is in a heavy industrial zone, would also potentially trigger the same land use challenges that blocked the city of Portland in its recent efforts to relocate the Right To Dream Too homeless camp. 

Smith suggested she will wait to see the outcome of a legal challenge that’s been filed against Harbor of Hope — Homer Williams’ proposed homeless shelter on a city owned industrial land at the outskirts of the Pearl District — before pushing for further action on Wapato.

She also expressed frustration that Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman had agreed to work with Williams. 

“The city should have pushed Homer Williams and his request to do emergency shelters to Multnomah County. We are the local government that is responsible for homelessness,” she said.

Many members of the public who came to speak encouraged the county to consider the idea of a shelter at Wapato, saying the jail is a waste of public money sitting empty.

“A million dollars to prep a facility that cost $57 million to the tax payers,” said Robert Shultz, who said he’d toured Wapato and urged the commission to consider it. “It seems almost silly that we’re having this conversation in this, ‘Should we do it?’ fashion.”

But faith leaders and shelter operators lined up against it.

“Wapto is too far from everything. Twelve miles from Portland, 22 miles from Gresham, no grocery stores, limited bus service, no social services,” said Kate Lore, a minister with the First Unitarian Church.

County Commissioner Diane McKeel said she sees Wapato as a viable option and wants the county to do more work investigating what it would take to operate a shelter there.

Commissioners Jules Bailey and Judy Shiprack both said stand by Kafoury in opposing the idea.

“The hardened structure, the whole message that says, this is a place of punishment is not appropriate for a shelter,” Shiprack said. “Neither is the fact that there aren’t any grocery stores or services.”

County officials say without Wapato entering the discussion, they are on track to double the number of shelter beds available by the end of the year.