County: Empty Wapato Jail no place for homeless

Wapato Jail unused since completion in 2004

The empty Wapato Jail in a May 2013 photo. (Christopher Onstott/Portland Tribune)
The empty Wapato Jail in a May 2013 photo. (Christopher Onstott/Portland Tribune)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Wapato Jail is now more than a decade old and has never housed a single inmate. Some people are calling for Multnomah County to turn it into a homeless shelter for hundreds of people, but county leaders say there are just too many hurdles.

Officials said they studied the issue this past Fall after being approached by members of the community, including the Portland Business Alliance. They decided taxpayer money could be better spent creating homeless shelters closer to downtown Portland where there are services for the homeless.

Unused beds in one of six 50-bed dormitories in the Wapato Corrections Facility. The North Portland building was built for 525 beds. (Jonathan House, Portland Tribune)
Unused beds in one of six 50-bed dormitories in the Wapato Corrections Facility. The North Portland building was built for 525 beds. (Jonathan House, Portland Tribune)

But homeless advocate Jeff Woodward — who is behind an online petition to turn the Wapato Jail into a homeless shelter — argues it could make a difference in many lives.

More than 1200 people have signed Woodward’s online petition,

Multnomah County pays $300,000 a year to maintain the building in North Portland. Voters approved the bonds to build the $58 million jail — which was completed in 2004 — but never secured the cash to run the 525-bed facility.

In November, the Department of County Assets released its analysis about the use of Wapato as a shelter.  They reported on financing restrictions, initial capital costs, operation, the incompatibility with nearby businesses and the facility’s accessibility. Read it here.

But Multnomah County spokesperson Dave Austin said the facility wasn’t completely finished and was designed to be a jail, not a shelter for vulnerable people, people with mental health issues and people with children.

It would cost taxpayers at least $5 million to $7 million to get the building ready, Austin told KOIN 6 News. Bringing services out to the facility, opening it full time would add even more cost.

And, he said, it’s about 10 miles away from the closest services without a bus stop anywhere near. Current zoning is another hurdle.

But homeless advocate Woodward feels all those hurdles could be overcome.

“I think as these tent communities continue to expand in Multnomah County, the need and awareness is just going to build and build,” Woodward said. “I think right now there’s a perfect storm for Wapato and its use.”

You can read more about this in The Portland Tribune.

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