A version of this post was published on line by The Oregonian 11/2/18.
Many Portlanders believe Wapato Jail is a logical, simple answer to our community’s mental health crisis. They say, “Let’s use it as a residential substance abuse treatment center/mental health facility for people who would otherwise be incarcerated or living outside. Wapato is secure. It’s isolated away from neighborhoods. It was built with a clinical component. There is a high prevalence of substance use disorder and mental illness among people incarcerated or those who are living outside. Just do it!”
Legal, logistical, and philosophical barriers make this impossible.
Legally, zoning limits the use of this site to “heavy industrial”. An exception was made to the zoning requirement for Wapato because the facility would be used as a jail, and people would not be free to come and go. But this exception would not apply to a substance use treatment or mental health facility. The City of Portland could theoretically change the zoning, but when the Council tried to put Right 2 Dream Too on an industrial site of less than a quarter acre, our decision was overturned by the state. Also, legal Covenants, Codes and Restrictions with the adjoining businesses, governed by the Port of Portland, prohibit use of the facility for anything other than heavy industry or as a jail.
Logistically, there is no public transportation to/from Wapato. It is remote. It takes 3 hours by a combination of buses and walking to reach from downtown. There are no services nearby, and people would have to travel far to doctors, grocers, restaurants, work, or school. Many people who experience houselessness and/or mental illness have children. Families want to stay in their own neighborhoods, near their own schools and friends, not in an isolated industrial area.
Perhaps most important, using a jail as a substance use treatment center or mental health facility is inappropriate on philosophical grounds. Putting people experiencing mental illnesses and/or houselessness at Wapato would cause people sheltered there additional trauma. Problems at the Unity Center show even a facility designed and built to help people experiencing mental crises through their illness can struggle to provide safe, effective care. I worked in inpatient Psychiatry at OHSU for 22 years, on units converted from the old Multnomah County Hospital. We constantly battled to overcome the barriers to building community spirit among psychiatric patients, even in a facility built as a hospital. I can’t even begin to imagine how staff would create a collaborative and soothing environment in a facility designed to punish people and keep them apart.
Even if all these challenges were magically addressed and Wapato could be transformed into a model substance use treatment center or mental health facility, the County simply doesn’t have the funds needed to operate and maintain it, unless many other treatment facilities and shelters were closed.
Operating Wapato as a treatment facility would require $5 million annually in additional revenue. Data shows the most cost-effective approaches to solving homelessness are to prevent people from losing their housing, and to re-house them as soon as possible. If the City/County had an additional $5 million, a mass shelter/treatment center would not be the best use of those dollars. Shelters are needed as a stopgap measure. They are not the best use of taxpayers’ dollars in addressing the crisis on our streets. Discussions on Wapato rarely discuss how ongoing revenue for operations might be generated.
Jordan Schnitzer, the current Wapato owner, said, “Dream first, then get practical.”
Government shouldn’t operate that way.
Let’s learn from history. Government doesn’t have the luxury of creating something without a solid plan for how to pay for it. That’s why Wapato was never used as a jail in the first place. Encouraged by the then-sheriff, voters supported building the facility… but then voted to limit property taxes. That prevented Multnomah County from generating the revenue to operate and maintain the jail. Wapato has sat vacant ever since. With Wapato in private ownership, it makes even less sense to find a new public use for the jail.
It’s time to lay the Wapato Wish to rest, convert it into a warehouse or other industrial use, and move on. Wapato is totally inappropriate for a mental health care treatment facility.
Multnomah County Commissioner Dr. Sharon Meieran is working on a systemic review and improvement plan for the County’s mental health care programs. The Joint Office on Homeless Services is providing housing to thousands of Portlanders every year. There isn’t a magical instant solution for these needs. Let’s stop pretending Wapato is it.