Wapato is back.
That's Wapato Jail—the never-used Multnomah County facility that for years has served as a flash point over the county and city's response to homelessness.
The idea got a boost this week when a nonprofit backed by developer Homer Williams offered $7 million in cash for the property.
County commissioners have repeatedly rejected the idea of making Wapato a shelter, in part because of the symbolism of putting homeless people in jail, but also because of the remote location and high operating cost.
The debate has become a lightning rod in this election cycle.
County Commissioner Loretta Smith, who is running for the Portland City Council, has championed the shelter plan. She held a press conference Monday to again argue for that solution.
Later that day, Smith's opponent Jo Ann Hardesty called Wapato shelter supporters "idiots"—a notable break from Portland's polite campaigning and a sign of the depth of disagreement on the issue.
As news of this new offer was breaking, WW asked the candidates about the idea.
We asked: Should Wapato, the county's empty jail, be used as a homeless shelter?
Yes. "Is Wapato the only site that would work for a large-scale shelter? No. But currently it is the only one in front of us. It must be carefully considered as a viable short-term solution."
Jo Ann Hardesty
No. "From a policy perspective, Wapato is just a bad idea. City and county leaders have looked at this option before and decided it was not viable. Advocates believe—and I agree with them—that homeless Portlanders need access to services and transportation. Wapato provides neither. But downtown business interests want to see homeless people warehoused there. We need big solutions to pressing problems, but this is not a solution."
Yes. "We have over 1,700 unsheltered people on the street (with four shelters now closing) and Wapato has 525 empty beds with additional land that can be used for tiny house villages. Wapato can be economically redesigned to look like a welcoming residential facility, the No. 11 and 75 bus lines can be easily extended to it, and services can be located at Wapato. And Multnomah County taxpayers own it already!"
Leaning toward no. "Many homeless and housing advocates I respect have said a prison building, located in the middle of nowhere with no services, no access to jobs, grocery stores, and no transportation is not the right place to help people rebuild their lives. I would need to be convinced that it is a good idea."
Yes, with a caveat. "Wapato is owned by Multnomah County, and the city has little to no influence over that decision. With that said, I am a strong supporter of the campus model, and Wapato does fit within that model."