Repurposing: An Answer to the Homelessness Crisis? 

February 15, 2020

A Vacant Jail

Funded by a 1996 Multnomah County bond measure and completed in 2004, the $58.4 million Wapato Corrections Facility has sat vacant for nearly 2 decades, never housing a single incarcerated person. The combination of falling crime rates, failure of a subsequent bond measure to fund and operate the jail, and zoning constraints are the main causes for the vacancy. 

For years, some local leaders, unhoused people, and activists voiced support for repurposing the empty jail into a homeless shelter. Others were skeptical – and outright opposed – to repurposing the jail. Questions arose about the possible triggering effect that even an extensively remodeled jail building might have on already traumatized people. Rumors started that homeless people would be rounded up downtown and brought against their will to the facility. Land use restrictions and the site’s distance from transit and resources brought its feasibility into question. 

Left with a lack of options Multnomah County decided to put the jail up for sale, collect the yearly taxes from the property, and put the proceeds back into housing stability with wraparound services. In 2018, a purchase was finalized and the Wapato Corrections Facility was sold for $5 million to Portland businessman Mary Kehoe, who in turn sold it to philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer for the same price.

Weighing his options of how to use the space and with an expiring demolition permit in hand, Schnitzer was only months away from giving up on the jail ever serving Portland’s vulnerable community members. 

And then he met Alan. 

Alan Evans

Removed from an abusive home at age 11 and faced with the daunting challenge of navigating the often broken support systems, Alan was homeless and struggling with addiction by the time most of us enter the 8th grade. Facing barrier after barrier, with seemingly no way to break the cycle, Alan’s last resort for shelter and stability was jail. 

Fortunately, his last arresting officer listened to his story, gave him a chance, and “offered him a hand.” The officer found a home for Alan while he got on his feet. Alan got a job, saved some money and founded Helping Hands, an organization that provides to others the stability he had needed in his life 2 decades prior. 

Helping Hands

What started in Seaside, OR as an 8-bed home for people experiencing homelessness is today Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Center — an organization with 11 emergency shelters and reentry program facilities in Clatsop, Tillamook, Yamhill and Lincoln counties. Their mission is to provide a helping hand to a sustainable life through Resources, Recovery, and Reentry. 

As the homelessness crisis spread across our communities, Helping Hands expanded its support. Through comprehensive, person-centered and trauma-informed services, Helping Hands takes great care to listen intently to each person’s story, history, and challenges, and has developed its own software to assess and review residents’ progress.. By understanding each individual’s situation, the related traumas and challenges, and their unique needs, Helping Hands can better connect each person with the support, resources, and networks necessary to attain permanent sobriety and independence. 

The Bybee Lakes Hope Center

The Center hopes eventually to become a 500-bed shelter and treatment center that provides a comprehensive system of support – all under one roof. Convenient and easy access to necessary resources is an important part of  successful long-term stability for our community’s most vulnerable people. 

More than simply offering a roof and a bed, the Bybee Lakes Hope Center approach is to  provide vulnerable community members a much-needed framework and roadmap to stability. It will be a safe place for individuals and families on their journey to stability to access one-on-one case management; individualized reentry plans; addiction and mental health services; as well as ongoing job training and education opportunities.

Each person entering the Center must l be referred by a partner organization or service provider. In order to qualify for a referral, that individual must be clean and sober.

Residents are expected to participate in 10 hours of community service per week, attend regular self-improvement and skill-building classes, and pay a monthly membership to sustain their housing once they’ve secured employment (though scholarships are available to those in need). Easy access to all the needed resources and supports enables each individual to achieve their own goals and attain stability in their life.

In order to renovate the space and begin accepting referrals by Winter 2020, Bybee Lakes Hope Center must raise  $3 million from private donors, with an additional $1.2 million needed to run the center each year. With $1.2 million already secured and fundraising efforts continuing to ramp up, the goal appears to be achievable. 

Tours and education events have introduced the Center to fans and skeptics alike. 

From Prisons to Community Spaces

Hundreds of jails and prisons sit vacant across the US, costing taxpayers millions of dollars and monopolizing space that could better serve our countries vulnerable populations. As they close, remain vacant, and drain the government budget, a repurposing of the spaces is of the utmost concern. And this idea of repurposing a place of incarceration and transforming it into a community space is not all that new. 

In King County, WA, for instance,  vacant government buildings have been being converted into housing and resource centers for the growing number of people experiencing homelessness. The GRACE Marketplace in Gainesville, FL and the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community in Las Animas, CO are also strong examples of what the Bybee Lake Hope Center could become. 

Similar results have been seen internationally. In Amsterdam, for example, the closure and conversion of prisons into community space seems to be the new norm, even closing the famous Bijlmerbajes prison and turning it into a center for asylum seekers. Though obviously facing a very different set of challenges and cultural histories, if crime rates are down, the inmate population is falling, and community resources are being used to help those people most in need: Something must be being done right in Amsterdam. 

Back Home in Portland

The underlying causes of homelessness are many and complicated, such as a mental or physical health crisis, rent increase, job loss, changes to family,financial setbacks, or any combination of these things. Anxiety and depression can kick in, and sometimes substance abuse. 

For those who are battling addiction, ready to change their lives, and comfortable in a remodeled jail, Helping Hands  at Bybee Lakes Hope Center offers a proven road to recovery

Our community is in crisis. Our neighbors are struggling and the response has not been enough.

We have the means and ability to make an impact and it is imperative that we do so. 

We just need to act.