By COLIN STAUB
On average, union workers earn 20% more than non-union workers. But averages don’t tell the whole story, and with housing becoming unaffordable across the region, even union members are finding themselves without a place to sleep at night. In response, Labor’s Community Service Agency (LCSA)—a nonprofit connected to United Way and local labor groups—is helping union members get back into housing.
In January, LCSA launched a transitional housing program. With a referral from their union, workers experiencing homelessness can move into a room at a former motel facility in Portland rent-free for three months.
During their stay, they’re offered a tenant education course called Rent Well (provided by the Portland nonprofit Transition Projects) which teaches them how to apply for rental housing and how to understand rental agreements, and educates them about tenants’ rights. Case workers assist with paperwork, fees and deposits, and help them apply for benefits like food stamps.
The 90-day program provides a break for union members who’ve gotten used to worrying about where they’ll sleep.
“It has taken the pressure off, the stress of just trying to survive day to day,” says Shawn Loe, a member of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 757 who is currently in LCSA’s housing program.
By the end of the 90 days, if all goes well, the union member moves into housing that they themselves can afford.
“There is such a stereotype of what the houseless community is, and it is so much more than what it would appear.”
Teal Dunbar, LCSA
In the past five months, LCSA has helped four union members and one union member’s partner in the program. In all cases, LCSA has gotten the member into the transitional housing program within one or two days of referral, and in one case it happened the same day. The workers were members of ATU Local 757, IBEW Local 48, Teamsters Local 162 and UA Local 290.
“These are union workers who have work opportunity, they just need the chance to save up and get back on their feet, and that’s what this provides,” says Teal Dunbar, the LCSA staffperson who oversees the transitional housing program.
Union members who’ve contacted LCSA lost their housing in different ways. One was a victim of identity theft who couldn’t qualify to rent because it tanked their credit score. Another split up from his partner, moved out too quickly and was living in his car.
“The common theme was that it just took one or two destabilizing events,” Dunbar said.
LCSA developed the program after receiving more calls from union members who lacked stable housing. The organization could pay for a hotel room for a couple nights, but wasn’t set up to provide longer-term assistance.
Dunbar asks that union members keep the program in mind if they know a coworker who’s struggling. She says LCSA wants to remove the stigma attached to housing insecurity.
“There is such a stereotype of what the houseless community is, and it is so much more than what it would appear,” Dunbar said.
Program is a ‘life saver’
Shawn Loe and his wife, Denyse, had been struggling for several years by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Back in 2014, Denyse’s cancer returned for a third time. Two months later, doctors found an additional tumor. Then she was injured as a passenger in a car accident. There was a custody battle with an ex. Expenses piled up. Money problems led to housing instability.
“All of that, it just flattened us financially,” Shawn Loe, 51, told the Labor Press.
For three and a half years he and Denyse were living in motels, sleeping in their car, couch-surfing with friends. By summer 2018, they were getting back on their feet. Loe was working part time, and the couple could afford an apartment, although they were late on rent occasionally. In 2019 he started driving for TriMet Lift paratransit — a shared-ride service for elderly and disabled passengers — and joined ATU Local 757. But his hours fluctuated, and dropped near the end of 2019, just as the couple’s rent increased.
“We couldn’t make it happen,” Loe said of the higher monthly payment.
Their landlord didn’t want to evict them, he recalls. But they couldn’t come up with the money within the given timeframe. At the end of 2019, they opted to leave within 10 days and remain in good standing, without racking up fines.
It was early 2020, and they thought they’d go back to living in motels for a few weeks, and try to save enough money to get into another apartment. Then COVID-19 hit, and Loe was laid off for three months, along with hundreds of other Lift workers.
“That’s what started this round of homelessness for the last few years,” he says. “We’ve been doing motels for the most part, bouncing around a lot.”
He went back to work at TriMet Lift after three months, but the housing instability continued. They’d live with friends for a month, go back to motels the next. Early this year, things were looking up: He went full time at TriMet. The couple had the funds to pay rent. They just needed to save for upfront move-in costs. After filing their taxes, they got refunds in early March, and they put that money on a prepaid debit card, along with Loe’s latest paycheck. [Loe says they’d seen creditors garnish money from their bank account before, and they wanted to make sure this money was untouchable for a deposit on an apartment, and to keep it separate from their weekly living expenses.]
Then, Denyse’s purse was stolen while they were on the bus, with the money inside. Not only did that kill any chance of making a deposit, but they were living in a pay-by-the-week motel, and the coming week’s rent was due the next day. They had all their belongings and their two cats with them, and not even a car to sleep in.
“We were just screwed,” Loe says. He says they’d been robbed before, but never of so much: All of their money was gone. “That’s something that will just stop you dead in your tracks. It’s hard to wrap your brain around.”
Scrambling to figure out a plan, Loe called his union. He had asked coworkers a few months earlier if there were programs to help workers struggling financially. At that time, he’d found a program helping union members who were out of work for at least two weeks, which wasn’t his current situation. A coworker suggested he call the union again anyway, and as it turned out, LCSA’s transitional housing program was just getting going. ATU Local 757 administrative secretary Danielle Bower connected him with Dunbar at LCSA. Since their motel stay began, he and his wife have been catching up on bills and getting back to financial stability. Case workers are helping them apply for rental housing.
“They got us in,” Loe said. “It’s just been a life saver.”