By LINDA BAKER
Charlotte Garner wants to debunk a myth about social workers — “that we do it out of the kindness of our hearts and don’t care about money.”
An active member of AFSCME Local 88, Garner earns $26 an hour as a substance abuse case manager at Portland’s largest homeless services nonprofit, Central City Concern. That doesn’t make it easy to make ends meet as a 32-year-old single mom and renter. Child care is expensive.
But low wages don’t have to be the norm, Garner says.
“We can pay people running the homeless shelters a livable wage, and that will improve things for everyone.”
Garner works in Central City Concern’s Old Town Recovery Center. Garner and her coworkers push self-sufficiency instead of abstinence, helping clients find housing and build life skills such as how to make a doctor’s appointment, budget, and locate food and groceries.
“If these activities include abstaining from drugs, that’s cool,” Garner said. “And if it doesn’t, we try to find the balance of self-sufficiency and stability while they are still using.”
The job is intense, and with 21 clients, Garner says she’s overworked. But she loves the work. She got into the field because her ex-wife, a former addict, had a hard time getting help to get clean.
“Many of the people I work with have not had the greatest encounters with systems,” Garner said. “I want to change that. I want to make a positive impact on the world.”
Garner said seeing the look in clients’ eyes when they secure housing for the first time is one of the best parts of her job. She recently helped a 50-year-old client get his first apartment.
“It’s not like he got an apartment at the Taj Mahal,” she said. “But being able to have his own space with his own name on it and not worry about someone kicking him out – it was the greatest thing.”
The worst part of the job is having clients die — as three did in the past month alone. Many of Garner’s clients are medically fragile, and some are now turning to more lethal drugs like fentanyl because of how easy it is to obtain, Garner said.
“Seeing someone you’ve worked so hard with for so long pass away — the effect that it has on every single person on my team is really hard.”
Before joining Central City Concern five years ago, Garner worked for two years for Fora Behavioral Health (formerly the DePaul Treatment Centers). Years of experience shaped her philosophy about how to get clients to stop using: Acknowledge people as human beings and help them meet their basic needs for food, security, and shelter.
“As a substance abuse counselor, the hardest thing is to look at someone sleeping on the street, and say: ‘I know you’re a woman and afraid of being sexually assaulted, but you need to stop using meth to stay awake,’” Garner said.
Most of the work she does for CCC’s “substance abuse, housing first and harm reduction program,” as it is called, involves engaging with clients who have secured housing — and explaining what behaviors put them at risk of losing that housing. For example, Garner might tell a client that using meth puts them at risk of eviction and that transitioning to marijuana will reduce that risk.
Garner says City homeless sweeps make it hard for her to find her clients, few of whom have phones. She meets clients in their apartments, on the street, and in her office. And she says there’s little evidence that mass encampments work. Garner is critical of Ted Wheeler’s plan to prohibit homeless street camping starting in 2024.
“How do you put a ban on homelessness when they have nowhere else to go?” she asks.
A single mother, Garner has her own struggles finding affordable housing and child care.
She worries about what will happen in September, when the lease on her Beaverton apartment renews. She says her landlord raised a neighbor’s rent by 14.6%, the maximum allowed under a state cap. And labor shortages at the Oregon Department of Human Services made it hard for Garner to get the state child care subsidy for her 4-year-old daughter, who attends Lisa’s Wiggle Worms, a “proud union daycare.” (State-paid family childcare providers are represented by AFSCME Local 132.) Garner has full custody. Her ex pays enough child support to cover the family portion of child care costs.
“It’s interesting to hear client stories and then to realize: ‘I know what it’s like,’” Garner said. “Me and my kid are one accident, one thing away from being homeless ourselves.”
Garner said she tries not to let her work life bleed into the time with her daughter.
That’s hard to do, she said. “You can’t just shut off the computer and walk away.”
Financial challenges, like not being able to afford dental work, compound the stress.
“Honestly, sometimes I just lose my shit,” she said. Garner unwinds by painting and skiing.
On June 18 Garner will graduate with a master’s in social work from Portland State University. Under the union contract, the degree will increase her current annual salary of $49,000 by $3,000, and qualify her for higher-paying positions at Central City Concern and other employers.
Garner represents her Central City Concern coworkers on AFSCME Local 88’s executive board and served on the bargaining team that negotiated the current contract. That contract raised wages 17.5% over the course of its three-year term. Negotiations were contentious.
Looking ahead, Garner wants to spend more time advocating for apprenticeship programs for mental health and addiction counseling positions.
But to entice people into apprenticeship programs, she said, you have to be able to offer them a living wage. Garner recalled the moment during contract negotiations last year when she and her coworkers voted to approve a strike. It was averted after management agreed to wage increases.
“As a single parent, the idea of not having a steady paycheck was scary,” Garner said. Witnessing the struggles her coworkers experience on a daily basis gave her the necessary courage.
“It helped me realize how important it was to keep fighting,” Garner said.