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An Oregon Civil Rights Watchdog Says a Jail for the Homeless Is a Disastrous Plan

A conversation with Bob Joondeph.

Without Bob Joondeph, many of the 700,000 disabled Oregonians would be worse off.

Joondeph, 68, started work at the federally funded civil rights watchdog group Disability Rights Oregon in 1986 and became the group's executive director in 1991. DRO led the fight to close institutions such as Dammasch State Hospital (closed in 1995) and the Fairview Training Center (closed in 2000), which warehoused developmentally disabled Oregonians in often inhumane conditions. Those closures were part of a three-decade battle to integrate disabled Oregonians into everyday life.

DRO has won landmark litigation over curb cuts, working conditions for the disabled and, more recently, new protections for mentally ill prison inmates and juveniles held at a regional jail in The Dalles. Now Joondeph is calling it a career. His retirement party was Oct. 21, but he'll stay on until his successor is named.

WW: Did closing facilities like Dammasch and Fairview set the stage for thousands of people living on Portland's streets?
Bob Joondeph: Absolutely not. One of the greatest myths is that homelessness is a result of closing state institutions. That's totally incorrect. Oregon never stepped up. There hasn't been the investment in community-based mental health services that everybody knows is necessary. And when the cost of housing goes through the roof, providing housing with supportive services becomes an economic challenge.

In Portland, there's a lot of debate about opening Wapato jail for the homeless. What do you think?
That would go 180 degrees in the wrong direction and be contrary to where we've been going for years. It will resegregate people. Just look at Unity [Center for Behavioral Health] and at the problems they have creating one place for people experiencing a mental health crisis. Yet you could take people off the street and send them off to the bayous of North Portland and somehow that would be great? It will be underfunded and overcrowded and suck resources until it fails.

Is the status quo better?
No, what we have currently is an intolerable situation. But we didn't get here overnight, and we won't get out overnight. There's an impulse in the political realm to say, "We're going to do something to fix the problem right now." Institutions are not a good idea. We've tried that and it's failed.

What frustrates you?
Oregon's inability to fully fund or even robustly fund a community mental health system. Oregon is not a top-down policy state. So if you look at how mental health services are provided, there's no standardization from county to county and the system is incredibly complex. It is an archipelago of competing interests.

DRO has won big victories on your watch. What do you wish had gone differently?

I regret not being able to make the case to lawmakers that building a state hospital in Junction City [a 174-bed, $130 million facility opened in 2015] was a step in the wrong direction. Not only did it create more indebtedness for the state through bonding the construction project, it took a large chunk of money out of the state general fund that could have not only been spent on community mental health services and supports but been matched by Medicaid.

How do conditions for disabled Oregonians differ from their peers in other states?

There are many states that still have large institutions for people with disabilities. And the litigation that's followed closure and required the integration of people formerly institutionalized is cutting edge. On the other hand, California has much stronger disability protection laws than we do. Their state version of the Americans with Disabilities Act is stronger than the federal law.