Portland, OR — At first, 9-year-old Brehanna didn’t seem to understand.
Her family was being evicted from their home in Tualatin, a Portland suburb. Her father, Joe Ledesma, a homebuilder for 20 years, was without a job and couldn’t find another. He couldn’t pay the $800 rent on the three-bedroom house where he, his wife Heidi and daughter lived.
The Ledesmas had no place to go.
In the months that followed, the Ledesmas stayed with relatives and lived in shelters and churches as they tried to regain their financial footing.
Joe spends most days searching for jobs. Heidi, who at 42 is disabled because of severe arthritis in her ankles, shuffles her feet and limps as she tends to domestic duties. She cooks for her family in the crowded kitchen of an east Portland homeless center.
“I never thought this would happen to us,” she says. “Not in a million years.”
Brehanna — affectionate and playful — has transferred to a new school, one that caters to students who are homeless or in transition.
“We are having a hard time paying rent,” she tells her reading teacher Mary Weller. “But if you want to pay rent and you need to get money you can donate blood. My dad does that.”
Each move promised better pay and steady work for Joe. By the time the housing boom went bust in Oregon, a state that in many ways remained beyond the fray of the housing crisis until the last half of 2008, he had worked on dozens of Portland properties.
He could point to high-end homes in the thick of the metro area’s tree-covered hillsides and tell his daughter he helped build them. Pounding nails to assemble frames earned him roughly $17 an hour.
Joe and Heidi both graduated high school, and while his salary as a homebuilder was modest by some standards, it was enough to keep the Ledesmas happy in their doublewide modular home.
Joe says he was blind-sided at the end of last year by the quick decline of the job market in Oregon, where the unemployment rate reached 12.1 percent in March, second highest in the nation.
When he got into the homebuilding business in the 1980s, he could open the newspaper and find as many as
15 job listings. Now, there are often none, and when there is one, 50 other people are likely to apply for it.
“It was within a blink of an eye, we went from having a home to here,” he says.
For gas money, he collects cans and bottles. On a good day, the containers will yield him $15 at an east Portland recycling center.
Twice a week, he donates plasma at a local blood bank, which earns him about $65. He uses the money to pay for medicine, gas and odds and ends. The family buys groceries with food stamps.
At the shelter, a mountain of blankets and clothes is piled on the family’s bed — three Army cots pushed together in a corner.
Brehanna had taken to a narrow space between a cot and the east wall of the Warming Center. Her back to the wall, she sits on the ground, knees nearly to her chest.
“How do you spell San Francisco?” she asks her father as she does her homework, a stapled, six-page worksheet with math problems and maps. “Eight times six is 84? Oh no, it’s 48.”
Joe and Heidi sit on the bed and fold laundry. Wind beats against a window draped in quilts. A baby cries, and there is chatter in the next room, where single women who have also fallen on hard times sleep.
Two months pass.
It’s the end of April. Joe has a job painting houses; he no longer has to collect cans from strangers’ trash bins or donate plasma.
And the family is no longer homeless. They have moved into a two-bedroom, first-floor apartment on Portland’s gritty eastern edge. The $750 rent is paid by the same nonprofit that ran the shelters where the Ledesmas had been staying. The subsidy lasts for a year.
“We’re getting a place. Wee!” Brehanna says, as she and her parents drive to their new home.
Brehanna, who has turned 10 in the time her family was homeless, walks into the apartment for the first time. “I can roll on the floor,” she says.
Floor tiles in the kitchen are cracked. The beige carpet in the living room has black scuff marks. The neighborhood is not the best, and Heidi is hesitant to let Brehanna to play outside.
Still, it’s a home.