A man smiles for the camera with a blurred background

A Sheltering Shield: Eviction Legal Defense

Tuesday, Mar. 5, 2024

In the intricate dance of life, there are moments when the music falters, and threat casts a daunting shadow over the hopes and dreams of individuals. This can come when a medical emergency strikes, when disaster knocks on your town’s door or when the bills pile up, and your stability and security are struck a destabilizing blow with the red notice of an eviction on your door. These moments rend at the heart of anyone who experiences them, and we believe they happen too often.

Too many people in our community are one emergency away from being unable to pay their rent. Too many are working multiple jobs, doing things “right” and yet still can’t keep up with the increasing pace of inflation, rent and all the costs of living that only seem to be going up. At United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, we focus on creating opportunities for individuals and families in our community to stay housed and live healthier lives. We do this by investing in programs and services that address the root causes of our systemic housing issues that impact our community’s health, safety and economic mobility.

Our Eviction Legal Defense program offers rental assistance and legal aid to those in the Portland region who need it most. To date, we have helped 1,475 families and individuals stay housed. Many of these people worked hard, spent frugally and still wouldn’t have been able to stay in their homes without community support. All these people deserve a helping hand, but today we’re going to focus on Tim Robinson’s story.

Tim is an ambitious entrepreneur who ran his own screen-printing company and helped roll out the Bolt scooters here in Portland. Then, COVID hit and things changed.

“They say, ‘Take big risks, get big rewards.’ That’s part of being an entrepreneur. But no one really focuses on the other side of that – when the risks don’t pay off."

Tim Robinson, Eviction Legal Defense recipient
A man in an elevator smiling as he moves equipment

“I was running two companies at the time, and one lost $200,000 immediately,” Tim said. “That loss impacted my ability to run my other company. We then lost our biggest client, and it all spiraled from there.”

Tim is driven, ambitious and, even in the midst of this stressful time in his life, he was positive and hopeful. He prioritized paying his employees, doing the best he could in those unprecedented times. But his work and personal bills inevitably caught up with him, and in 2022 he started to struggle to pay them on time.

“They say, ‘Take big risks, get big rewards.’ That’s part of being an entrepreneur. But no one really focuses on the other side of that – when the risks don’t pay off,” Tim said.

In June of 2023, Tim was facing an eviction and heard about the Eviction Defense Project. Through this program, United Way paid two months of rent for Tim, helping him stabilize his housing situation while a lawyer from Metropolitan Public Defender represented him in eviction court. The attorney was able to keep an eviction off of his file, which helped Tim find a new place to live and hit the ground running. But even with all this help, he was too close to homelessness for comfort.

“I spent a few nights with friends and family, my roommate’s friend found us a cheap hotel for a few nights, but after a while you run out of good will,” Tim said. “I spent one night in my car, packed with my belongings, and I realized this isn’t something I can do.”

This is the reality of homelessness, it comes in stages and can affect anyone. It is a multifaceted issue, often overlooked until it reaches the most visible stage of individuals living on the streets. Yet, beneath this surface lies a sequence of stages, each signifying a step closer to homelessness. It begins with housing instability, where individuals struggle to afford rent or face eviction due to unforeseen circumstances. Many find themselves couch surfing, relying on temporary arrangements with friends or family, a precarious situation that often leads to further instability. Our Eviction Defense Program intervenes before couch surfing or leaning on an individuals support network has to happen. We seek to keep people stable, in their houses and able to continue building toward their own financial security.

"This program is a starting place. But no matter how many people we help remain housed for months, years or beyond, the systemic issues that tenants face creates a continuous body of people in need."

Vivien Lyon, co-managing director of PCC Legal Resource Center's Eviction Legal Defense Program

Communities must intervene at each stage to prevent homelessness and support those in need. This requires investment in affordable housing initiatives, rental assistance programs and supportive services. Proactive outreach and engagement like our Eviction Defense Program can identify individuals at risk early on, connecting them with resources before their situation worsens. We seek to foster a more compassionate and resilient society. This allows us to intervene before the traumas of poverty and housing insecurity can compound and create more difficult situations for families and individuals.

"It's difficult to work when you don't have anywhere to go," Tim said. "I'm 40 years old, I've made tons of money, and then I lost everything. After all of this, I think most people would give up and try something different. But I'm going to keep pounding away at it. Because I know how this should work, but it's not working right. So I'm going to keep at it, keep working, keep coming up with ideas until I get what I need."

A woman standing in front of a window looks at the camera
Vivien Lyon, co-managing director of PCC Legal Resource
Center's Eviction Legal Defense Program

This initiative is shared between ourselves, Portland Housing Bureau, Oregon Law Center, Portland Community College Clear Clinic and Metropolitan Public Defender. Collaboration is key, because the issue of homelessness and evictions are so multifaceted. Addressing the issue before families and individuals are evicted is pressing because we know that evictions can cause further trauma. They are expensive, destabilizing and further accelerate the cycle of poverty for generations.

"The impact of evictions on children, it's horrifying," said Vivien Lyon, co-managing director of PCC Legal Resource Center's Eviction Defense Program. "You receive this message that your welfare does not matter to the powers that be. That leaves a lasting impact on your ability to trust the legitimacy of the system."

Lyon is one of the many lawyers who work alongside us in the Eviction Defense Program. United Way acts as a fiscal sponsor to this program, with our accounting team oftentimes working late hours to ensure a check gets out the door. Evictions move fast, meaning if we hope to prevent one before it goes to court it necessitates a rapid deployment of unrestricted funds to a landlord who has filed an eviction.

Even the idea of tenants having legal representation throughout the eviction process is new, according to Lyon. Yet, expanding access to legal representation for tenants can support tenants’ ability to negotiate better agreements, help tenants understand and participate in their hearings and help them deal with the confusion and trauma of a pending eviction case. According to Oregon Judicial Department court records, only 2% of tenants have legal representation during eviction cases, while 56% of landlords are represented by a lawyer or landlord agent. And this disparity in representation doesn't just hurt tenants.

"The landlords who retain attorneys on a regular basis, the large property management companies, they are utilizing all of the legal resources for landlords right now," Lyon said. "Smaller landlords, people who have a few tenants, if they want to evict someone who hasn't paid rent in a few years, they'll have to do it on their own because the large property management companies are evicting floods of people."

The uphill struggle to keep people housed is daunting. Success stories like Tim's are there, but no one should be going through this in the first place. Through coalitions like ours and many others in Portland, we can start to build more resiliency.

"This program is a starting place," Lyon said. "But no matter how many people we help remain housed for months, years or beyond, the systemic issues that tenants face creates a continuous body of people in need."

This means our work is far from over. But for the 1,475 families and individuals we've helped keep housed since the Eviction Defense Program started, their work and their stress has been lessened. For someone like Tim, that means having a stable place to live and hit the ground running again — as he has in the past and as he is doing now. Always the entrepreneur, Tim was excited to share with us his latest idea for a new business venture; he hopes to open a sandwich and ice cream shop in some open retail space near his new rental. Keep an eye out for it!

“I’m thankful I have a place to live. I’m thankful there wasn’t an eviction. And now I’m really rebuilding from the bottom. But, ya, let’s get after it!” he said with a smile.

A flyer asking if people need free eviction legal defense and listing the number 971-344-8949 and email evictiondefense@oregonlawcenter.org for free help

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