An Oregon Coast nonprofit announced Friday that it is looking to turn North Portland’s never-used Wapato Jail into a mixed-use facility for people experiencing homelessness.  

Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers operates multiple emergency shelters and reentry program facilities in four counties near the coast. It’s hoping to do something similar with Wapato.  

Wapato owner Jordan Schnitzer purchased the facility from Multnomah County last year, envisioning it as a homeless shelter. He announced in October that he planned to demolish the building unless he could find funding to support that vision.  

“We decided that it would be a shame if this was torn down,” Alan Evans, founder and CEO of Helping Hands, said at a press conference Friday.  

Evans, who experienced homelessness and addiction for more than 25 years before founding Helping Hands, wants to turn the former prison into the Bybee Lakes Hope Center — a facility that would offer support services from outside partners, an emergency shelter and a transitional housing program.  

“I’ve been in a couple prisons in my life and this is not one of them,” Evans said. “This is a building. This is an opportunity, and we believe that we can make a difference here.”   

Helping Hands’ case statement on Bybee Lakes Hope Center estimates operating expenses for the facility would be about $1.4 million.  

Schnitzer said he estimates the nonprofit will need $3 million to $4 million in donations to get the project off the ground. He said he’d be willing to commit $1 million.  

Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers founder and CEO Alan Evans speaks at Wapato Jail in North Portland on Dec. 13, 2019.

Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers founder and CEO Alan Evans speaks at Wapato Jail in North Portland on Dec. 13, 2019.

Meerah Powell/OPB

“You need some big contributions initially,” Schnitzer said.    

Although Helping Hands’ current operations near the coast do not rely on any state or federal funds, Schnitzer acknowledged that Wapato is a large facility. He said his hope would be for community leaders to recognize the project’s potential once it begins to gain donations.  

“Here’s a chance for them to rise to the occasion and to reach out to Alan [Evans] and say, ‘Gee, we didn’t think this thing could work, but by gosh, if you have an organization that’s proven itself and thinks it can, we want to help,’” Schnitzer said. “[Multnomah County Chair] Deborah Kafoury, [Portland] Mayor Ted Wheeler, county commission, Metro council, whoever it is — reach out and see if we can make this dream into reality.”  

Oregon State Sens. Betsy Johnson and Lew Frederick also attended Friday’s press conference and spoke in support of the project.  

Schnitzer specifically said that no deals were final yet.  

“This is just an interim announcement about a new program that has high hopes, high risk, but it’s going to take a lot of steps and a lot of things need to go right,” he said.    

Schnitzer said he will reevaluate the project — and Wapato’s fate — in the next few months.  

Evans said Helping Hands will begin to accept donations for the project through its website immediately. He said the nonprofit will have a specific website for Bybee Lake Hope Center up in a few days.  

“We’re asking business owners who are worried about the people sleeping in their doorways to join our team,” Evans said. “We’re asking politicians. We’re asking other people to join together to see if we can make a difference together as a team.”