Developer Jordan Schnitzer has officially handed over the keys to Portland’s never-used Wapato Jail.

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.

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In the past, Helping Hands has operated exclusively along the Oregon Coast with 11 shelters in Clatsop, Tillamook, Yamhill, and Lincoln counties. Its largest shelter in Astoria can fit about 60 people. With the conversion of Wapato Jail, the plan is to house 230 people within the first year of opening.

Harsch has agreed to charge just $1 dollar in rent annually, according to a statement from the real estate company. The thinking, according to Helping Hands, is that Schnitzer will eventually donate the building to them.

Schnitzer had been looking for a provider to convert the jail into a homeless shelter since he bought it about two years from fellow developer Marty Kehoe. But the most promising plan failed as it required money from city and county officials who insisted they didn’t want public funds going to a shelter 12 miles from Portland’s downtown core.

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Helping Hands promised to get off the ground without public money. Founder Alan Evans said he needed $4 million to get started, which he’d secured in February through four $1 million checks.

Since then, Raven Brown said the group’s been working on reenvisioning the jail and bringing contractors on board. She said they’re looking at options for more windows, more doors, plans for dog and cat kennels and community gardens.

“We’ve been continuing to work on what it would look like in an ideal world now that we know we have the minimum funding to just get the doors open,” said Brown, who, when reached by OPB, was driving to meet with a potential pest exterminator who could get rid of the spiders that have been the building’s main residents for years.

There are still significant challenges ahead for Helping Hands. The area is currently zoned for industrial use. To change the zoning to allow a shelter, the group will need to get permission from the city council, whose members have spoken out in the past against housing vulnerable people in a former jail, calling it ill-informed and inappropriate.

Brown said she’s not seeing this as an obstacle to the plan, but rather “a logistical step,” one which they might have more momentum for as the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic threatens to increase the city’s homeless population.

“We really don't foresee the city council trying to block any homeless services right now when they should see a great need for it in the fall,” said Brown.

She added the group plans to come to the city council in the next few weeks once they have a fully-formed plan in place for the space.

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