Jail Space as Shelter

Controversy: Using Jail Space for Shelter

Several cities are responding to the increased demand for emergency shelter beds for homeless individuals by using former or unused jails as temporary overflow shelters. 

The growing movement to use jail space for shelter is controversial, and local proposals to repurpose these facilities are facing public opposition.

Supporters argue these local decisions are well-intentioned efforts to support unhoused community members without bearing the cost of building something new. Others are concerned this growing trend creates a harmful perceived connection between crime and poverty. Opponents also argue that transforming jail space into mass homeless shelters is not a cost-effective approach to addressing our country’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis. Local debates about using jail space to shelter people experiencing homelessness taking place in Portland, OR, and Las Animas, CO, are discussed below.

Wapato Debate – Portland

A controversial proposal to transform a vacant county jail into a homeless center is under discussion in Multnomah County, Oregon. Wapato Corrections Facility, a minimum-security prison in North Portland, cost $54 million to build but the facility never opened due to unexpected budget cuts. After paying off the bond that funded its construction in 2018, Multnomah County sold the property to private owners for $5 million. Jordan Schnitzer, a Portland developer, bought the facility with plans to convert it into a community center for homeless residents. In October 2019, Mr. Schnitzer announced the property would be torn down due to a lack of funding and support from elected officials and homeless advocacy organizations. 

According to a Multnomah County press release from October 2019, resistance to Mr. Schnitzer’s plan to transform the vacant jail facility into a homeless shelter includes concerns with its cost, type of building, and location.

Homeless service providers, community members, business leaders, and people with lived-experience argue Wapato is not an appropriate, sustainable, or cost-effective option for addressing homelessness in the region. 

The County confirmed it would prioritize funding longer-term housing programs rather than mass emergency shelters. Funding Wapato would require $18 million per year, and the County argues this money could create 1,000 permanent homes with support services instead.

In December 2019, Mr. Schnitzer and leaders of the local nonprofit Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers announced a new plan to convert the property into a shelter with comprehensive on-site services. City and state land-use restrictions do not allow mass shelters, short-term housing, or group-living facilities on industrial lands, but some backers of the Wapato conversion believe the city may vote to overturn these regulations. Mr. Schnitzer agreed to commit $1 million to help the conversion become a reality, but the campaign must raise at least $2 million more.

Fort Lyon – Colorado

The Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community Program, located in a former minimum-security prison in rural southeast Colorado, provides recovery-oriented transitional housing to individuals who are homeless and struggling with substance abuse. The program, operated by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) in partnership with the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and Bent County, provides housing combined with peer support, educational, and job services for up to 250 people currently or formally experiencing homelessness across the state, with a focus on serving veterans.

"The program provides housing combined with peer support, educational, and job services for up to 250 people currently or formally experiencing homelessness across the state, with a focus on serving veterans."

Initially, some state lawmakers expressed skepticism, raising concerns about the program’s effectiveness and financial sustainability. A five-year audit of the program ordered by the General Assembly showed mixed results. The evaluation found three-quarters of Fort Lyon residents did not return to the streets or shelters. Nearly half of Fort Lyon residents moved into permanent housing, and 29% left the program to other transitional housing opportunities. Critics argue the evaluation did not examine the clients who failed the program. Only 38% of the nearly 800 clients who left Fort Lyon from 2013-2017 completed the program, which means exiting to permanent housing and meeting their therapy or sobriety goals.

As for the program’s economic impacts, the 2017 program evaluation found economic activity at the Fort Lyon Program created 119 jobs and more than $10 million of financial activity in Colorado in 2015-2016. Some Bent County residents have raised concerns about the program’s adverse impacts on the community, however, citing perceived problems like increased crime and substance use but never presenting data to support these claims. 

Different opinions on how to end homelessness influence how the program evaluation results are interpreted and used in discussions about the Fort Lyon Program’s future. While some state lawmakers and community members have interpreted the audit’s results as proof the program needs improvement, some housing advocates believe the results demonstrate the program’s success in getting people off the streets, into the recovery process, and stabilized in housing. CCH is committed to continuing the program and enhancing the program experience, outcomes, and community relationships to ensure people experiencing homelessness in Colorado have a safe place to go to recover from their substance-use disorders and get on a path to housing stability.