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Despite pandemic, plans on track to open Wapato Jail as homeless shelter by fall

The jail, which has sat empty since it was built in 2004, will provide an option for people who may be newly homeless due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

PORTLAND, Ore. — After more than a decade of needlessly sitting empty and unused in North Portland, work is underway to turn Wapato Jail into a shelter and open it to the city’s homeless by September.

It will run under a new name: the Bybee Lakes Hope Center.

Local developer Jordan Schnitzer, who bought the jail from Multnomah County in 2018, sees the irony in the timing. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to a grinding halt. For the first time since it was built, Wapato would have had a valid reason to remain vacant.

But he’s relieved renovations, which began in April, were able to continue because the need is rising. 

“The COVID thing has just exacerbated [the need]. Those that had some savings or had a job… they’re wiped out now,” he said. “This project is coming on. Just in time would have been a year ago or two years ago. Now is better than never.”

When Schnitzer purchased the building for $5 million, he had a goal of turning it into a shelter. What he didn’t have was a plan as to how to make it happen.

After months of publicly threatening to demolish the jail, he announced he’d found help. It came in the form of Alan Evans, the CEO of Helping Hands, a nonprofit that runs shelters along Oregon’s coast.

Evans, who spent years on the streets himself, points out the portion of the shelter slated to open by September will house close to 70 emergency shelter beds. Those are reserved for people who, for whatever reason, need a bed and food for the night.

More than 200 others will, hopefully, be ready to open by the end of the year. Those will serve as longer term housing for people working to get back on their feet.

Evans knows the pandemic, which has prompted months of historic unemployment, might force a lot of people to seek help for the first time.

“There’s a lot of people who may have been making it before, who are not going to be making it now,” he said. “So, this is a really important project for us because we want to make sure we meet the needs of the people in the community.”

Construction work, much of which is awaiting a permit from the City Council, will be minimal, Evans said Tuesday. Crews will mostly be taking out barriers meant to keep inmates from escaping, opening up hallways to create an inviting lobby space and updating wiring.

Multnomah County originally built the jail in 2004 for $58 million. In short, the project was poorly planned, and the jail was never used. Each year, the county spent millions more in upkeep. Officials cited the extensive maintenance costs as their main argument against using Wapato as a homeless shelter.

Since announcing their partnership, Schnitzer and Evans have raised more than $4 million in private money, which Evans said should cover operating costs for the next two years. Schnitzer is leasing the space to Helping Hands for the next five years.

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