Could Wapato still become a homeless shelter?

Site's potential new owner will meet with shelter advocates

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)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Despite the Multnomah County board’s vote last week to finally sell the never-opened Wapato jail, the saga of the longtime political albatross may not be over.

Not only does developer Marty Kehoe have until April to close the deal by transferring $10.8 million to the county, but it appears the facility could yet become a homeless shelter and service hub — which was the goal of many of those who opposed last week’s deal.

The board’s 4-1 vote last Thursday promised to end more than a decade of paying millions to maintain the facility, which Chair Deborah Kafoury termed a financial “sinkhole.”

The majority of the board rejected the idea that the county should keep the building — half of which was originally intended for treatment services — and use it to help the homeless.

But now, if the building is sold, the county may not have much say in the matter.

Kehoe told the Portland Tribune on Friday that as debate over the vote had heated up, he’d spoken with people hoping to address Portland’s homeless situation, and “I understand their frustration, because basically nothing is being done to resolve the homelessness and mental health crisis that our city is facing.”

This week, he hopes to meet with those people, including some who had been calling for Wapato to be used as a homeless shelter. One of them, he said, is developer and property manager Tom Brenneke — who’d been involved in a competing bid for Wapato, hoping to use it to address homelessness.

“I’m meeting with them next week in an information session so that I can hear their concerns,” Kehoe said. “It’s a whole group of people that are passionate about helping the homeless issue.”

Asked whether this meant Wapato could become a homeless shelter, he declined to elaborate — but nor did he rule out the possibility.

Kehoe said the discussion this week will be about a strategy that’s “bigger than just Wapato,” one that includes mental health treatment, “affordability matters,” and an ordinance limiting public camping.

The mention of a new camping ordinance is significant for two reasons, not the least of which is it would be highly controversial.

Kehoe’s mention of it indicates that the potential new owner of Wapato is sympathetic to the concerns of downtown employers and property owners who say authorities need to do more to address the number of people who are homeless and camping in the city’s core. Over the weekend, Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle threatened to close the company’s downtown office if Mayor Ted Wheeler doesn’t do something to address issues his employees have faced, including camping in their doorways, threats, and human waste.

If Wapato becomes part of such a proposed strategy, it would put county leaders in a difficult spot. Some homeless advocates have privately expressed concerns that using Wapato as a shelter would lead to increased homeless sweeps by police in order to keep the facility filled.

Chair Deborah Kafoury has said repeatedly that it’s not feasible to use Wapato as a homeless shelter, citing its distance from services or, indeed, much of anything at all. Wapato “can’t work” as a shelter, she said after Thursday’s vote.

She noted that the board voted to use the proceeds from the sale to “end people’s homelessness. It’s not a band-aid. It’s a solution.”

Kehoe’s offer of $10.8 million is well above an appraisal’s finding in 2014 that the property is worth $8.5 million.

The 155,400-square-foot jail sits on 18.24 acres of industrial land in the Rivergate Industrial Park. Completed in 2004, it cost $58 million to build, and the county says it costs about $300,000 yearly to maintain.

An analysis by the Portland Tribune shows the total cost to date is more than $90 million, including interest and maintenance payments, and could exceed $105 million by the time all the bonds are finally paid off in 2030.

In 1996 voters approved a bond to fund the jail’s construction. But county officials say that years later the statewide passage of caps on property taxes meant that the county never had the funds to operate it.

Wapato shelter would face obstacles

The proposed sale agreement echoes Kehoe’s current intent of converting the jail into a distribution center for a medical supply company. But its language is non-binding. It merely notes the “purchaser intends to use the property for development, construction and operation for warehouse, distribution and other industrial facilities or any other legal purpose.”

But whether a Wapato shelter would be legal to operate is another issue. In Thursday’s meeting, county officials contended the current industrial zoning on the property does not allow shelters.

It’s unclear whether the city’s emergency ordinance would assist in overcoming the zoning hurdle.

The idea of a city camping ordinance would also face a buzz-storm of opposition.

In an announcement before the vote, the Portland Police Association suggested the future of Wapato be put before the voters to decide. Such an initiative, if pursued, would put pressure on local leaders.

Deal could fall apart

Following Thursday’s vote, Kafoury acknowledged that the deal could still fall through.

“Of course it could,” she said. “I think when we have the money in a bank, that’s when we can celebrate.”

But she added that the county had one other qualified offer for the property, and that one way or another, Wapato would be sold.

“We’re going to get that property back on the tax rolls,” she said. “We’re going to get it off of our back, and we’re going to use those funds to help people in need.”

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.