We say no to Wapato Jail

My View: County’s failures continue with Wapato
Portland Tribune – October 6 2016
Written by Jenny Westberg and Jason Renaud for the Mental Health Association of Portland

The Mental Health Association of Portland opposes Multnomah County commissioners siting any shelter for people who are homeless, for people who have mental illness, or for people with addictions, at Wapato Jail.

For decades Multnomah County evaded addressing chronic homelessness, mental illness and addiction. Evasion left good programs unfunded or crippled, discouraging participation, and undermining efforts of the state, city and outside advocates to support and fund other solutions.

The result is the public health disaster we see on our streets today.

Commissioners ignored best practices; left primary care disconnected from mental and addiction health care; maintained contracts to agencies that failed to provide worthwhile services; disregarded advice of expensive experts; and frittered away time with costly causes that delayed and denied attention to people who are homeless.

Instead of finding solutions, Multnomah County commissioners smoothed the path for sellers of tobacco, alcohol and marijuana to proliferate throughout the community, which expanded the public health crisis of addiction.

Instead of providing help, Multnomah County commissioners made it impossible for people in mental health crisis to navigate the service system, get effective help, or reduce their symptoms so they wouldn’t be killed by cops.

The legacy of Multnomah County is damage and despair for people who are homeless as a result of untreated addiction and mental illness. Tens of thousands have been harmed, and in many cases the harm probably is unfixable. The decay has crept into their families, their children, even friends and neighbors.

And now they bring us Wapato Jail. Commissioners, our friends relied on you to protect them by providing basic services — and you failed. Wapato Jail continues your legacy of failure.

To claim, in the midst of a so-called “emergency,” you’ll allow homeless people to stay in Wapato Jail is nothing short of disgusting. Offering Wapato Jail is just an excuse to say you provide sufficient shelter and therefore can enforce a no-sleeping-in-public-places ordinance.

The answer to homelessness is not emergency shelters in abandoned jails at the edge of town. The answer is supportive housing — small apartments attached to supportive services. Yes, it’s more expensive and complicated than a cold hard cell with steel bars for a door, but it’s not inhumane. It’s not a dismissive “let them eat cake.” And supportive housing actually solves homelessness.

Recovery from homelessness begins with hope. Hope is a promise things can get better. Getting better is effective drug treatment. Getting better is sanctuary where we can get real help. Getting better is peer support.

What burns trust and extinguishes hope is the message you belong in jail.