Wapato Jail

Wapato Jail in North Portland has never been used.

An Oregon Coast-based nonprofit kicked off its fundraising campaign Saturday to turn North Portland’s never-used Wapato Jail into Bybee Lakes Hope Center, a mixed-use facility for people experiencing homelessness.

The nonprofit Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers operates multiple emergency shelters and reentry program facilities in four counties near the coast.

It’s working to hit a goal of $4 million to transform Wapato Jail into a facility offering support services, emergency shelter and program-based transitional housing.

“That will cover the startup costs for renovating the space and making the changes we want to make to make it appropriate for group housing and trauma-informed supportive services,” said Raven Russell, director of data and major projects for Helping Hands.

“That will cover the start-up and operating expenses for the first two years.”

Russell said reaching that funding goal will ensure Helping Hands has time to do a “proof of concept period” at the space and to gather data through a database she said was developed for Helping Hands by volunteer software developers.

“That’ll allow us to collect the data about who exactly in the Portland area is needing our services out there, what our utilization rates are and exactly what services they need from us,” Russell said. “Our approach is very trauma-informed. We take the time to learn each individual’s story and their circumstances that brought them into homelessness because their story is going to dictate what services they need in community, and we do not expect people to fall into a cookie cutter.”

Specifically, Helping Hands is looking to open three of the nine wings at Wapato Jail and house up to 228 beds in the first year of operation — one for men, one for women and the remaining wing for families.

The total bed space capacity for the facility is more than 500 beds.

“We want to phase in operations there so we can make sure to do this in a sustainable way,” Russell said.

Along with those beds, Russell said, Helping Hands is looking to work with community partner agencies which will be able to provide services on site such as job training.

“We have brought in a few community chefs from the area that want to do some vocational training programs in the kitchen, so they would be donating their time and working with clients who are living there that have an interest in gaining those skills in the kitchen and that would make them hireable in kitchens,” Russell said.

Helping Hands is also looking to develop partnerships with services like “detox and treatment, services like medical and dental health, mental health,” Russell said.

“We’re trying to get as many relevant services on site at Bybee Lakes Hope Center as we can so we can increase access and help people to get the right services at the right time in their treatment plan,” she said.

So far, donors have committed about $1.3 million to Helping Hands, Russell said.

“We’ve only been working on fundraising for a few weeks now, but we’ve had a lot of people who really believe in the project and really see our vision,” she said.

Wapato Jail’s owner, Jordan Schnitzer, has set a deadline for Helping Hands to hit its goal by mid-March, at which time he will decide whether to demolish the building.

“We’re feeling very confident,” Russell said about hitting the $4 million goal.

Helping Hands is also accepting donations through its website.

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