Repurposing Jails and Other Innovative Solutions to the Growing Homelessness Problem

If you live in Portland, Oregon, you might be “used to” seeing people sleeping in tents, people openly using drugs, people without shoes or proper clothing pushing carts with meager belongings through town, or people acting strange and often frightening others with their behavior on the Max trains, buses, or sidewalks. But nobody really gets used to such things and, as someone who has worked in downtown Portland for 10 years now, I see the city's homelessness problem getting worse, not better. Factors that allegedly have contributed to the increase in homelessness include the financial crisis, cuts in funding for mental health services, an opioid crisis spiraling out of control, and the simple fact that the City of Portland becomes more and more unaffordable every year. There are not a lot of statistics and numbers to look to, but the homeless population is unofficially counted every year. Based on the 2017 tally, the number of homeless was 4,177, an approximate 10-percent increase from 2015. The number of homeless visible to us all also went up when former Mayor Charlie Hales allowed people to sleep anywhere in the city on public property, the result of which was shocking.

Business and community leaders have come forward in the past with potential solutions to Portland’s homeless crisis, but have faced bureaucratic hurdles. For example, an offer to repurpose a jail, built by Multnomah County in 2003 but never used (the Wapato Corrections Facility, consisting of a 155,400-square foot building on an 18-acre property), was recently rejected. The jail became mired in difficulty before it was even built and ultimately, the jail was never put into operation due to the county lacking the funds. About $109 million has been invested in the building to date.

In November 2017, the sale of the jail to real estate company Kehoe Northwest Properties was approved by Multnomah County commissioners for $10.8 million. That deal encountered problems however and Kehoe later submitted a revised offer of $5 million. Developer Homer Williams stepped forward to offer the county $7 million to buy the jail and turn it into a homeless shelter. But county commissioners approved the $5 million sale instead, citing problems with zoning, accessibility, and lack of nearby services, among others, for a homeless shelter in that area. Kehoe’s plans for the building and site include redevelopment as a distribution facility, as a data center, or for heavy industrial uses. Notwithstanding the fact that the city's stated reasons for why Mr. Williams' offer was unacceptable seem to stem from having problems with solutions, the jail facility cost over $10 million to build and many more to operate since its construction – therefore the sale to Keho comes at a large loss.

The concept of repurposing a shuttered jail or prison facility is not new. The uses to which these facilities have been put or planned for in other locales include: a service center for women leaving incarceration, a medical marijuana cultivation facility, a movie studio, a distillery, and a homeless shelter.

But even without an already-existing housing facility like a shuttered jail, other business leaders are creating alternative solutions to homelessness and are doing so outside the model of government-sponsored or government-subsidized shelters or low-income housing. For example, Portland developer Kevin Cavenaugh, of Guerrilla Development, has created two new housing projects in NE and North Portland, one of which is designed not to shelter homeless people, but instead to provide affordable housing to people who are working to serve or advocate for the homeless. This particular building will have retail shops on the ground floor and 84 residential units, a quarter of which will be offered at $600 per month (far below the going market rate) and be designated for social workers whose job involves working for or on behalf of the homeless.

Successful business leaders didn’t get where they are in life by stopping at every roadblock. With money donated from Columbia Sportswear president and CEO Tim Boyle (apparently under the motto of “put your money where your mouth is” considering that Mr. Boyle has been vocal on homelessness issues, including with his now-famous op-ed piece from November 2017 in which he wrote that moving Columbia Sportswear brand Sorel’s headquarters to downtown Portland may have been a mistake because Sorel employees didn’t feel safe going to work and were sometimes threatened), Homer Williams’ nonprofit organization Oregon Harbor of Hope plans to build a new homeless shelter and services facility underneath the Broadway Bridge. The property is owned by Prosper Portland (formerly the Portland Development Commission) and would be donated for this project. Once built, the facility is intended to house people only short-term while long-term solutions for each person are found.

Considering that there are a myriad of reasons for why people end up on the streets, it’s probably going to take a myriad of approaches to take care of them all and any solution can’t be a one-size-fits-all, cookie cutter approach. It appears that creativity and thinking outside the box are key, something that business leaders may be better equipped for than state or local bureaucrats.