Workers at tiny house villages want a union for safety

All Good NW workers Candace Honecker and Michael Rainey are organizing with coworkers to improve conditions at the city-sanctioned homeless village in Old Town where they work. | PHOTO by DON McINTOSH

By COLIN STAUB

Empty fire extinguishers. Needles spilling out of sharps containers. Inadequate training for staff. Unsafe conditions at a Portland city-sanctioned homeless village are driving workers to form a union.

Nonprofit All Good NW operates three tiny house villages for the homeless in Portland: the Old Town Village at Northwest Sixth and Glisan, BIPOC Village at Northeast First and Weidler, and Queer Affinity Village at Southeast Water Avenue and Main. 

The organization was started by North Portland pastor Andy Goebel last summer, and in September 2021 it won a $12 million contract from Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services to manage the three villages through August 2024.

The three villages started during the pandemic as temporary sites, and together are known by the acronym C3PO (Creating Conscious Communities with People Outside). The villages were first run by longtime homeless services provider JOIN, and later by Right To Dream Too (R2DToo), a nonprofit that manages a Northeast Portland homeless camp. In mid-2021, R2DToo decided to step away from managing the village program.

All Good NW—a spin-off of the homeless veterans support nonprofit Do Good Multnomah—took over at the request of the county’s Joint Office of Homeless Services.

On April 1, 14 of roughly 35 union-eligible workers sent a letter to Goebel and the organization’s board of directors, announcing their intent to unionize with AFSCME and asking them to voluntarily recognize their union.

They said All Good NW doesn’t properly train workers and that management is often unavailable to address immediate concerns at the villages.

“Lives and livelihoods are on the line,” the workers wrote. “We all joined this organization to serve those most in need, but right now they are not getting the service they deserve.”

Management ignored the request for voluntary recognition, but Goebel and AFSCME did reach an agreement on the terms of an election. Workers will vote by mail, and ballots will be counted June 2.

“Our organization is fully cooperating with the election process, and trusts our employees to make the best decision for themselves,” Goebel said by email after the Labor Press reached out.

Unsafe conditions at Old Town site

The union campaign covers all three villages, but conditions at the Old Town location are particularly troubling.

Case manager Michael Rainey was working at the Old Town site when someone outside the village tossed a burning bathmat over the fence. It landed on electrical cables, sparking an electrical fire. A manager suggested dumping water on the fire to put it out. (That’s dangerous because water conducts electricity and can cause a shock). Rainey used the one working fire extinguisher on-site to put the fire out.

Rainey, who is on the organizing committee for the union campaign, helps village residents get stabilized and back on their feet by connecting them with services like food stamps, Social Security or addiction recovery services. When he started at All Good NW five months ago, he says there was minimal training and it wasn’t relevant to what workers face every day on the job. New workers have to seek out experienced coworkers to learn on the job, Rainey says.

The lack of training means emergency response often comes down to the skill level of whoever is nearby at the time.

“Luckily, there’s usually someone around who has had training from another job,” Rainey says.

That was evident during a December overdose at the village. Afterwards, a management email thanked employees for saving the village resident’s life. But a worker replied that the overdose showed the lack of support workers received from management. Employees were able to handle the situation, but only because several staff members had experience from previous jobs. They didn’t have training from All Good NW.

OSHA pays a visit

It’s not just employees who think the camp is an unsafe workplace. Repeated complaints led Oregon’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to investigate early this year.

An anonymous OSHA complaint in December 2021 alleged that employees at the Old Town site were cleaning up blood without proper protective equipment and had not received blood-borne pathogen training. The complaint also said workers were providing CPR without a CPR mask or proper training, and that needles can be found everywhere.

More OSHA complaints came in January. Blood, urine and feces were on the floor of a bathroom in the village. Sharps containers were overflowing. When one worker gave CPR to a village occupant who was overdosing, a needle stuck to that employee’s hand and infected them with hepatitis. Forty to 50 employees were being exposed to used needles every day, one complaint alleged. 

OSHA investigator Linda Patterson visited the site multiple times. She found that the employer didn’t offer a hepatitis B vaccine to workers who had workplace exposure to blood, and that employees exposed to blood while cleaning restrooms and handling needles had not been trained. Management didn’t have written plans for exposure control as required. They also didn’t maintain a sharps injury log, or provide information or training about hazardous chemicals on site, or convene a safety committee of management and employee representatives. 

In early March, Oregon’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) cited All Good NW for nearly a dozen violations at Old Town Village, including nine categorized as “serious.” The agency fined All Good NW $2,190 for the violations.

Goebel, the organization’s director told the Labor Press by email that those complaints came just a month and a half into All Good NW’s time managing the site. The organization hadn’t had time to address the existing safety situation at the site, he said. He added, and OSHA records confirm, that All Good NW has taken action to come into compliance with OSHA rules.

“We recognized the legitimacy of those concerns, and though the infrastructure realities of that site were something we inherited, we nevertheless took them very seriously,” he said. “We worked diligently to bring all of our sites to full compliance as a result of these complaints.”

More homeless villages are coming

The union effort comes as All Good NW is gearing up to manage two additional village sites and move one of its existing villages. 

The Queer Affinity Village that’s currently on Southeast Water Avenue will be relocating to a site across the river on Southwest Naito Parkway sometime this summer. BIPOC Village similarly relocated last summer from Water Avenue to Northeast Weidler Street.

In April, All Good NW was selected to run an upcoming “safe rest village” in Portland’s Multnomah Village neighborhood, and the organization is planning to open a shelter on Southeast Market Street in Portland’s Central Eastside.

Rainey, the organizing committee member, says some All Good NW employees at the existing sites have left due to the current conditions, and that the union effort represents the dedication of remaining employees to making positive changes in the organization.

“We’ve really grown to know and care about the villagers of the three sites, and we know the potential that All Good could have, what this company could be,” Rainey says. “And that’s what we’re pushing towards, to make it better.”

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