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A Portland nonprofit has a new proposal for the never-used Wapato Jail. Photo by Eli Duke (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr.
By Christen McCurdy | The Skanner News
Published: 11 April 2019

A year ago, real estate magnate Jordan Schnitzer bought the Wapato Jail, talking initially of using it as a warehouse and later, repurposing it as a homeless shelter with help from developer Homer Williamsan idea floated by multiple advocates in the last years the facility was publicly owned. By November he’d filed for a demolition permit for the building, which was built in 2004 but has never been used.

But Kay Toran, the president and CEO of Volunteers of America Oregon, has a different proposal for the building.

Toran has drafted a proposal to repurpose the jail as a “community wellness center,” which would provide mental health and addiction services, as well as other health care services and possible job training. It’s an expansion of what VOA Oregon – which provides residential addiction treatment services along with domestic violence services, early child care and services for seniors – already does.

She said Schnitzer approached her last fall to create a new proposal for putting the building, which he’d considered turning into a warehouse but was still interested in repurposing for a civic use.

“The homeless issue and problem is a complicated issue. It isn’t just finding a roof. There are other issues that need to be addressed,” Toran told The Skanner. “One of the things that we know is that the population prefers to be around other services. They prefer to be in a larger community that has family and people, so a structure that is that remotely located doesn’t really speak to the needs that they have, the kind of social services and health services that that population needs.”

And when she spoke with Schnitzer, she said her bottom lines were that the building not be used as a jail. Instead, individuals in addiction treatment would stay at the facility no more than six to eight months – not an uncommon length of stay for individuals with severe substance abuse issues.

Toran has also spoken with Providence Health and Services and the University of Portland School of Nursing to provide health care facilities, and they’ve expressed tentative interest. VOA Oregon, which currently runs a catering service called Catering for a Cause, has also considered expanding vocational training to the site.

Schnitzer told The Skanner he’s pleased with Toran’s proposal, and said the Schnitzer Family Foundation can probably commit $500,000 per year to help fund the facility “over a several-year period.”

But he and Toran are appealing to both the public and private sector for startup capital.

“The public sector alone can’t figure this out. The private sector can’t do this without an aligned public sector,” Schnitzer said.

Toran’s proposal estimates that the startup cost to repurpose the facility would be $16,400,000 and the ongoing costs would be $18,460,000 per year. In March, she said, she met with Multnomah County staff to request a total of $6,292,000 for 100 residential addiction treatment beds, a figure based on the cost of VOA’s current residential addiction facilities. So far, she said, the county hasn’t taken action one way or another on the request.

Multnomah County spokesperson Julie Sullivan-Springhetti confirmed county staff had met with Toran to talk about the project.“VOA has been a longtime County partner and we are always willing to listen,” Sullivan-Springhetti told The Skanner. “But the County couldn’t make a social service use for Wapato pencil out financially when we owned the building. And we continue to believe the County’s role is to provide services and fill gaps close to where people already live, their communities and support systems.” 

County Chair Deborah Kafoury was publicly opposed to using Wapato as a homeless shelter, releasing a letter in November 2015 saying it was not a viable option for addressing the homeless problem. The matter became a political issue in local races in 2016, with Multnomah County Commission candidate Eric Zimmerman saying he wanted the county to send people to the shelter by enforcing the city’s camping ban – though he took issue with the question of whether that amounted to forcing them to go to the former jail.

Toran has also approached the state legislature for support, though Schnitzer told The Skanner he’s not optimistic the state will be able to provide any capital for the project given the budget challenges it faces.

“I guess we’re proceeding to move ahead with the demolition,” Schnitzer said, if funding for the wellness center can’t be found. He said he spends about $50,000 per month – adding up to $600,00 a year -- in utilities, taxes and debt services paying back the money used to buy it, keeping the facility standing. Previously Multnomah County reported it cost taxpayers $300,000 a year to maintain the closed building.

“We can’t sit by and let these people be sleeping on the streets and have mental health and alcohol and drug problems. We as a community a society cannot allow this to happen,” Schnitzer said.

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