The ongoing din over whether Multnomah County should turn its mothballed Wapato Jail into a homeless shelter seemed to reach a crescendo last week.

County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury led a majority of her colleagues in opposing repurposing the never-used jail as a shelter, because of its distance from social-service agencies. That seemed to mark an end to the debate.

Not if Eric Zimmerman has anything to do with it.

Zimmerman, a candidate for an open seat on the Multnomah County Commission, says if elected, he'll push to fund Wapato as a shelter in his first 90 days in office.

"This idea that we're not going to increase the capacity to actually shelter everybody is offensive to me," he says.

Zimmerman's pledge amounts to a palace coup by the standards of the normally placid county board. His stance puts him at odds with Kafoury and with departing Commissioner Jules Bailey, whose seat Zimmerman seeks.

But Zimmerman has seized on Wapato, which could become a wedge issue in his race against Dr. Sharon Meieran, an emergency room physician who's staked out campaign territory as the health expert in the race. He says he's doing what he thinks is right, not betting on the frustrations of voters in the county's first district, which includes all of Portland's westside within the county and most of inner Southeast.

Zimmerman, chief of staff to Commissioner Diane McKeel, advanced to the November runoff by finishing second in the seven-way May primary. But he won just 22 percent of the vote compared with Meieran's 42 percent. He has a lot of ground to make up, and he'll need to draw a contrast with Meieran to do that. (Meieran says she hasn't made up her mind on Wapato.)

"He can talk credibly and with knowledge about county assets and how they can be used," says Portland pollster John Horvick of DHM Research. "It would make sense to draw a contrast with her strengths."

As Portland and Multnomah County officials struggle to address an emergency that leaves approximately 3,800 people without permanent housing, the idea of remodeling a facility that cost taxpayers $58 million to build but was never used to house inmates holds consistent appeal for many, including the Portland Business Alliance, the city's powerful downtown business lobby.

Opponents of the conversion, including many leaders of nonprofits working to end homelessness, say the focus on opening Wapato is misplaced. Although it was never used as a jail, it looks like one, and it's far from jobs and the kinds of mental health and financial services people experiencing homelessness need to steady their lives.

Wapato was never used as a jail but opponents of using it as a shelter say it sure looks like one. (Photo by Julia Comnes)
Wapato was never used as a jail but opponents of using it as a shelter say it sure looks like one. (Photo by Julia Comnes)

But Zimmerman is doubling down on the idea. He tells WW he wants social-service agencies contracting with the county to move satellite offices into the empty jail. And he wants Portland City Hall to send homeless people to the shelter space by enforcing the ban on camping on sidewalks and parks.

"It's OK for this community to say you cannot just camp everywhere," he says. "We owe it to the city overall, the county overall, to say we want our parks back. We want our streets back."

In an interview with WW last week, Zimmerman took issue with the question of whether such a policy would force homeless people to live in Wapato.

"If someone does not want to be sheltered in our community, they don't want to work toward more stability, then they would have a choice to leave this community," he says. "I don't think that sleeping in the middle of any one of our parks is something we should be agreeable to."

Here's video of the exchange.

Zimmerman may be testing the political support for his plan.

A poll from City Commissioner Steve Novick recently asked voters whether they supported turning Wapato into a homeless shelter. Novick shares a political consultant with Zimmerman. That consultant, Jake Weigler, declined to discuss who paid for the Wapato question in Novick's poll. He also declined to discuss its results. Zimmerman said it wasn't his poll question.

"This is not a new issue," Kafoury says. "Some of us have been working a very long time on this. To show up at the 11th hour and insert yourself into the conversation is purely playing politics."

On Sept. 22, as county commissioners met in a regularly scheduled meeting to discuss potentially turning Wapato into a shelter, Zimmerman put up posters in the room with pictures of the facility and captions that described its "open lobby space" and "clean, plentiful hygiene facilities." He says he did so on behalf of McKeel, his boss at the county.

After the meeting, Bailey announced he would endorse Meieran, partly based on Zimmerman's lobbying for Wapato. That endorsement comes despite the fact Zimmerman is Bailey's designee to replace him on the commission if Bailey is unable to serve the rest of his term.

"I would have a very difficult time supporting a candidate so focused on Wapato as a solution," says Bailey, who wants the county to prioritize permanent housing. "I think her approach is better."

Meieran, who has Kafoury's backing in the November race, is noncommittal on Wapato. "The devil is in the details," she says. "We don't have all the facts. You can't say yes or no at this point."

It's unclear Zimmerman could flip the commission to his side.

Commissioner Loretta Smith, his second vote, has supported opening Wapato on a temporary basis.

State Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson, who's running unopposed to represent District 3 on the commission, says the facility isn't suited for a shelter. "The issue of location is a huge concern for me," she says.

Meanwhile, candidates Lori Stegmann and Amanda Schroeder are running for the commission seat in District 4. Schroeder opposes it. Stegmann says she's unsure. "I don't know if Wapato is the best, most cost-effective," she says. "I'd like to find out."

Zimmerman says he's motivated purely by the desire to help more people, using a method his opponent has resisted. "I'm not interested in changing the status quo because I want to score political points," he says. "But voters should know we differ."