Statement on Wapato

Sharon Meieran, Multnomah County Commissioner, District 1

I heard from a number of Multnomah County residents about the sale of Wapato Jail. As someone who cares deeply about the most vulnerable in our county, who works in the ER where we see the tragic downstream effects of homelessness, and who ran for office with a desire to improve coordination among our homeless, health care, and public safety systems, I wanted to provide additional insight into my decision to vote in favor of selling Wapato. My hope is that this statement provides a deeper understanding of my vote beyond what can be gleaned from the media coverage. I tried to err on the side of overinclusiveness, so my apologies for the length of this statement.

I Agree with Many of the Sentiments I Heard
I agree with much of what I heard from folks across Multnomah County about this matter. I believe that homelessness is one of the greatest issues facing our County and that we must find creative ways to address this crisis. Before I ran for Multnomah County Commission, I had heard of Wapato. I understood that it was a jail, that it had been expensive, that it hadn’t been used, and that it was sitting vacant while our community had tremendous needs. I wondered if the Wapato facility could be used as a homeless shelter, as doing so seemed like a cost-effective and humane approach to at least giving people a roof over their heads.

The Challenges Are Real
As I learned more and more about Wapato, I found a web of challenges that made it infeasible to use Wapato as a homeless shelter or really any other function for which it might serve the county. I personally do not object to using Wapato as a homeless shelter on the philosophical basis that it was initially built as a jail, but there have been many other real logistical and policy challenges that have posed significant barriers to using the facility as a shelter. I did my best to consider each of these factors, individually and as a whole, in making my decision:

1) Zoning Restrictions:
Wapato is located on land currently zoned for heavy industrial use. Much of the surrounding land is similarly designated. This area was designed as an industrial corridor, and the current makeup of the area is consistent with this use. Uses permitted outright include vehicle repair, self-storage, manufacturing and production, warehouse and freight movement, wholesale sales, and industrial services. “Residential” use is not permitted, and mass shelters are expressly prohibited from being located on such property.

Clearly a jail is a “residential” use, and when Wapato was built, an exception was obtained for zoning purposes. It was allowed because use as a jail would not interfere with the heavy industrial nature of the area, nor interfere with individual landowners’ uses. People would not have been free to come and go as they pleased, and high security was an expectation. A homeless shelter would not meet these criteria.

People have countered that zoning can be changed and exceptions made. This is true, but it’s not an easy process, and it’s important to be realistic about the barriers and the time and cost to taxpayers involved. To change zoning and amend the Comprehensive Plan to remove the Industrial Sanctuary designation, City Council would need to vote in favor of the changes. Even then, the City’s decisions would not necessarily be ironclad. The Land Conservation & Development Commission would need to acknowledge the Plan change, and the state land use review agency, Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA), has authority to review and potentially change city zone change decisions. Any interested party would have the right to appeal a City decision and then challenge LUBA’s decision at the Oregon Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.

A key case that speaks directly to this point occurred when City Council voted to make an exception to industrial zoning and allow Right to Dream Too (R2D2) to move to a city-owned location on the central east side, zoned for industrial use. LUBA reversed that decision on appeal. LUBA pointed out that state law specifically prohibits mass shelters from being sited on industrially zoned land, and expanded that to include tent encampments such as R2D2. As The Oregonian noted, the effort took a significant amount of time, with “hundreds of thousands of dollars of city money wasted.” A thorough summary is provided in the Oregonian’s coverage, and a copy of LUBA’s decision can be accessed here.

The process takes a great deal of time and money, and, even if City Council voted to make an exception to the zoning, this prior LUBA decision, which is directly on point and was made during the City-declared housing state of emergency, suggests that a City decision to allow a homeless shelter at Wapato would also be overturned.

2) CC&Rs (Covenants, Codes and Restrictions) with the Port of Portland and Surrounding Landowners:
The Port of Portland is party to a set of CC&Rs with surrounding landowners, prohibiting use of Wapato for residential purposes. The same exception was made for use as a jail as was made for zoning, because the jail was designed to keep people securely inside, and they were not free to come and go. The special warranty deed conveyed to the County expressly prohibited booking or release from happening on the property. The Port has exclusive authority to change the CC&R requirement.

3) Isolation from Community, Distance to Services, and Transportation Barriers:
There are as many reasons for homelessness as the people experiencing it. However, regardless of the reasons someone becomes homeless, they are part of our community and benefit from community resources such as grocery stores, libraries, schools, employment opportunities, parks, neighbors, childcare, etc. People who are homeless have families, friends and support systems that they lean on, and we would do people a huge disservice and hamper their ability to transition out of homelessness if we isolate them in a shelter far from any sense of community or access to amenities and assets we all need and value. In addition, individuals experiencing homelessness often need social support services to address physical health, mental health and addictions issues; to connect to employment skills training and resources; to safety plan around domestic violence or other trauma; and more. While services could extend out to the Wapato facility, the cost of doing this would be substantial.

Compounding these challenges, there are no public transportation options available to access Wapato. The existing bus line ends a twenty minute walk away from the entrance to Wapato. Extending the line would require agreement and action by TriMet. While a shuttle service to and from Wapato may be a worthwhile concept, cost and coordination would need to be addressed.

4) Shelter Strategy:
Multnomah County attempts to locate emergency transitional housing throughout the county, with particular focus in areas of highest need and where services are currently available, for the reasons described above. Concentration of individuals in large facilities provides a different model of shelter, which runs counter to these goals of supporting people in smaller, quality facilities embedded in community.

Ongoing Funding: A Significant Barrier
Perhaps most importantly, even if all of the challenges were addressed and we could open Wapato as a shelter tomorrow, we simply don’t have the resources that would be needed to operate it. To operate Wapato as a 500-person shelter, we would need to take resources from many of the other publicly-funded shelters across the county, where services are desperately needed and currently provided, and consolidate everything into one giant facility. This wouldn’t change the number of people served, it would just change the location in which they are served. Alternatively, if we maintained the current service level and also opened Wapato, we would have needed to generate an estimated minimum of $5 million per year in additional revenue to operate the facility annually. Neither of these options is feasible.

Learning from Mistakes of the Past
This final hurdle harkens back to why Wapato never operated as a jail in the first place: the sheriff at the time pushed for this jail to be built, and he convinced the county commissioners and then the voters to move forward with it. However, after construction on the jail had started, voters voted to limit their property taxes, making it so that there would never be the funding needed to operate the facility as a jail. The Wapato facility has stood as a monument to poor decision-making ever since. I advocated for taking the costs of operating a homeless shelter in the facility into account as we deliberated on this decision so we do not make these same mistakes again.

Wapato Is Not A Property Worth $58 million-plus
The current Board inherited a jail valued at $5 million. Regrettably, it was built at a cost of $58 million in taxpayer money, and taxpayers have continued to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to prevent it from falling into disrepair. But “cost” and “value” are very different. The county has aggressively marketed the property internationally, and the only viable offers were in the range of $5 million. So although the cost was tremendous, the value (and the offer we accepted) was for $5 million. Although $5 million may seem like a drop in the bucket, we can use these funds to make a difference through strategies like housing families, keeping older adults in their homes, and providing supportive housing for individuals suffering from mental illness and addictions. This will have a real-life immediate impact on those who are most vulnerable in our community.

The Harbor of Hope Offer
And finally, in terms of Homer Williams’s Harbor of Hope offer to purchase Wapato, although the idea of the offer was compelling, the offer itself was not actually for an unconditional $7 million. As written, the offer’s conditions left open the possibility that the County could have been responsible for covering the majority of that amount, and it simply was not an offer that would have been fiscally responsible to entertain. In addition, there was also no articulated plan for generating the money required to operate the facility on an ongoing basis, which is a crucial component of any plan for opening a new homeless shelter. I share Harbor of Hope’s vision of creating safe harbors and a path to stability for people who are homeless, and I look forward to the opportunity to work toward finding real solutions in partnership with the private sector.

The Timing of the Wapato Sale
I’ve heard from some community members that it seems like this decision was rushed, politically motivated, or both. It’s disappointing to hear this perspective, given all of the due diligence that countless county employees have worked hard to conduct, from a facilities, legal, policy, and program standpoint. Many individuals at the County over many years have given this decision and all of the potential possibilities sincere consideration, myself included.

In terms of this being a “politically motivated” decision, if I had wanted to take the politically expedient approach I would simply have voted against the Kehoe offer. It would have made for some great talking points. However, during my campaign, I vowed to make decisions that might not be popular, that might be difficult, but that I felt were the right decisions. This decision was extremely difficult, because the bottom line was that I wanted Wapato to be part of the solution in addressing our homelessness crisis. However, given all the information, which I’ve tried to summarize above, I felt there was only one responsible choice for me to make.

Some Closing Thoughts
As a doctor, I use my patients’ history, physical examination and medical evidence in making treatment decisions. I apply that same lens to decisions I make as a commissioner. To continue the medical analogy, I consider homelessness a cancer of our community. When treating cancer, therapies known to work include chemotherapy and radiation. Someone may offer a “miracle cure” that costs a ton of money to treat the cancer, but such treatment is not based on any evidence. As a physician recommending treatment, it would be irresponsible to offer them this miracle cure at the expense of proven treatments. Unfortunately, the same is true with Wapato.

Although I truly wished the situation was different, and I struggled to come to a different conclusion, in the end I had to rely on the facts before me in making my decision. I appreciate all the efforts people have made to reach out to me and share their opinions and concerns regarding the Wapato situation.