Portland homeless shelter finds success without local government funding

PORTLAND, Ore. — After sitting empty for years, what was once Wapato Jail has now been thriving as a homeless shelter and services center since October 2020, successfully helping unhoused people get off the street and into stability. So far, Bybee Lakes Hope Center has largely done it without financial support from taxpayers.

The North Portland facility is what’s typically considered a “high-barrier” shelter, where people cannot secure a bed on a walk-in basis; instead, they must be referred by one of the organization’s 80 partners. Residents must be clean and sober while living in the facility, follow rules and be accountable for their actions.

Alan Evans, the founder and CEO of Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers, which operates Bybee Lakes as well as other shelters around Oregon, was homeless for 25 years.

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“We believe compassion and accountability is what we want to invest in the people that live on our streets, in our communities, so we can provide the best person as they move back into our communities to be sustainable,” Evans said.

On Wednesday, Bybee Lakes celebrated the completion of an expansion, creating enough room at the shelter for 318 people. The pandemic paused the initial construction plan, and the shelter had been operating with a capacity of about 126.

“We realize this expansion is extremely important to our communities,” Evans said.

The shelter operates as supportive transitional housing, with a visiting area for friends or family to drop by, a theater room, and soon, medical and dental facilities and a child care center. Evans said Bybee Lakes is working on a partnership with OHSU to add medical services on site. A large garden on the side of the building is filled with more than 100 trees planted by residents. An industrial kitchen will double as a teaching area for food preparation and nutrition.

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Under the Bybee Lakes model, people can stay free for up to 60 days, sometimes longer if they need more time. After that, they’re expected to get a job and pay $250 a month for their bed space. Evans said about half of residents have full-time jobs within a mile of the facility.

Evans said the price tag to get Bybee Lakes converted to the space it is today was about $6 million, and yearly operating costs are about $2.4 million. He’s made it this far with private donors and some state funding, but hopes local governments will finally kick in and help.

“At the end of the day, this cannot work without a public and private partnership. It just can’t. To continually go to our major donors and say ‘Give us more so we can do… give us more so we can do…’ isn’t sustainable.”

Bybee Lakes recently applied for a $1 million grant from Multnomah County; whether they’ll receive it is still undecided. Up to this point, the county has had a chilly reception to Bybee Lakes.

“It’s not as if we wouldn’t want to work with them,” said Denis Theriault with the Joint Office of Homeless Services. “When we’re funding things, our model is low-barrier. That’s where we have decided our funding is best aimed. We want to increase the number if places where folks can go immediately and stay for a little while if they need to.”

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A $1.2 million donation from the United Way of the Columbia Willamette helped fund the recent expansion. The money was part of $20 million donated to the organization by philanthropist billionaire McKenzie Scott.

“It is one model that works very well,” said Cindy Adams with United Way. “We need a continuum of services and programs in our community if we want to serve more people, and it requires intention and understanding of how they need to be served, what resources we have to serve them and making some decisions about what those priorities are.”

In the meantime, Evans is proud his facility is expanding and overcoming the many challenges it faced along the way.

“Today we are extremely grateful, extremely grateful to say we finally did it at this building. People said it was impossible when we first came to this community,” Evans said. “What we want to tell you is it’s all possible.”

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