Despite HUD Visit, Wapato Jail's Future Still Unclear

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
Dec. 3, 2019 2 p.m.

The fate of North Portland’s never-used Wapato Jail remains up in the air after owner Jordan Schnitzer’s latest round of tours Monday afternoon.

One thing’s confirmed, though: The facility will not be turning into a HUD-run homeless shelter anytime soon.

The interior of the Wapato Jail in 2014.

The interior of the Wapato Jail in 2014.

Kayo Lackey / OPB

For a brief period, it seemed a Trump cabinet member might spare Wapato the fate of bulldozers. Emails obtained by Willamette Week showed Schnitzer told local officials last week that Ben Carson, the U.S. secretary for Housing and Urban Development, had expressed interest in using the facility as a "pilot project for homeless," and had invited HUD's regional administrator on a tour.

Jeffrey McMorris, HUD’s regional administrator for Oregon, Alaska, Idaho and Washington, attended Monday’s tour, along with what he estimated were 150 other supporters of Schnitzer’s vision to convert the long-vacant jail into a homeless shelter. OPB was not among the visitors as the tour was closed to the media.

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McMorris said the purpose of his visit was not to suss out the viability of a pilot project at the behest of Carson.

“To me, a pilot project means we have something we’re looking to put there,” he said. “And that’s just not the way HUD works.”

In a typical year, HUD awards about $25 million to the Portland and Multnomah County. But the agency leaves most decisions on how to use those taxpayer dollars to continuums of care – local bodies that coordinate federal funding for homeless individuals. McMorris said HUD administrators usually listen to local preferences.

McMorris said he accepted Schnitzer’s invitation to tour Wapato to get a sense of the place should local groups decide to channel funding toward the facility.

“It was worthwhile for us to actually see it and have more awareness of what it is, where it is and how different providers might be able to use it,” he said.

But he said HUD will be making no next steps toward converting Wapato unless the will is there on the local level.

“If the local community sees the vision, I think that's fine," he said. "But it’s really not our place to make that call.”

It’s not clear Wapato would be the priority for Portland-area groups that serve people experiencing homelessness. Many advocates have joined city and county leaders in expressing reluctance to place homeless men or women in adapted jail cells 11 miles from Portland’s downtown core.

When Schnitzer announced in October that he planned to demolish the facility unless he could find funding right away, Multnomah County leaders said they were pleased Schnizter had “reached the conclusion that he can’t afford to warehouse people in this remote jail.” It was obvious, they wrote, that Wapato was “the wrong building in the wrong place.”