Back from the brink
Picture a guy with a checkered past who has worked hard but hasn't had to look for a job for 20 years.
He's been looking for a job for three years and after multiple interviews, he's not getting call backs. He's living in his car and passing days at Providence Medical Center and Bud Clark Commons to keep clean.
In steps Worksystems, Inc. and a year later that man is looking trim and content, has a place to live and is grateful to be working seven days a week.
Geoff Thompson would be the last person to tell you he bootstrapped his way back to stability, but he does say: "I needed a hand up, not a handout. I don't need to be on permanent benefits.
"I just needed to get through the dark night of the soul I was in."
Thompson was helped by Human Solutions, which builds and operates affordable housing. His career and housing counselor there, Shawna Hoffman, referred him to Worksystems Inc., which helps people get into the job market.
Thompson currently works two days a week in front desk administration at Home Forward, the housing agency, and five days a week at Amazon's Troutdale facility, PDX9. There he picks around 700 packages an hour off a conveyor belt, turns and places them on shelving.
"It's full medical, dental and vision from day one and $15 an hour. I am grateful, but it's brutal," he told the Business Tribune. "It's an incredible workout. But I was always an athlete, high endurance."
One of Worksystems' tasks was to help get his checkered resume into shape and make him job ready.
Thompson, 58, used to be a 255-pound bodybuilder, benching 425 and squatting 630. He was on steroids, and did jail time for "fighting," as he puts it. Crimes which have been expunged from his record, he says.
Growing up poor in Parkrose to a single mom of five, he dreamed of the entertainment industry and moved to Los Angeles at age 25. He took acting classes at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting and Theatre (the same time as Benicio Del Toro). However, he became a rockabilly singer after doing a skit as a country singer one night. He had a record deal and bought his mother a house in Portland. One of his videos under the name "U.S. Male" by Jeff Thompson is on YouTube, in all its square format and tucked-in-shirted glory. (View the video here.)
After the brief singing career, he spent some time in the Columbia River gorge with his life partner running the View Point Inn in Corbett. First as a group home that taught cooking skills, then later he bought and ran it as an Inn. This is where the prom scene from the 2008 hit movie "Twilight" was filmed. In 2010, it was partially destroyed by fire and, having no insurance, he lost it to the bank. It was his third bankruptcy and he left a slew of unpaid bills. When that partner and Thompson's little brother died within a year of each other, the wheels came off. He found himself living in his Fiat 500 — a small car for a 5-foot-11-inch man — parking on the streets around Providence hospital on Northeast Glisan Street and using their facilities to wash up and keep warm.
He had estranged relatives who worked at Providence.
"There were lots of homeless people there. People didn't know if I worked there. When you work with Worksystems you have to look job ready every day: Shirt, slacks, dress shoes polished, to be prepared for work."
Word got back to his brother that Thompson was about to have his car repossessed. His brother made a few months of car payments and he stayed mobile.
"One of my greatest fears was ever ending up homeless. It is terrorizing. I did well, but it is terrorizing to not know (where to sleep). I never would have made it if I did not have a car."
By "made it" he means not commit suicide.
"I'd occasionally park on Broadway by Bud Clark Commons (the homeless assistance center). However, that was a little too intense: prostitution, drugs, seeing people shoot up heroin, it was just too rough for me. I would not have made it without a car."
He survived partly because he's in a 12-step program, 16 years sober, and wasn't tempted to drink or use drugs.
He adds, "Coming from my professional history, I've had a charmed life, but it started slipping away. I would have become the statistic on the street, the homeless guy jumping off the bridge. It's amazing to be where I am today."
Being saved by Human Solutions and Worksystems wasn't an overnight transformation.
He continued living in his car for several waiting for their funding to reopen in July 2018.
"Through Shawna (Hoffman)'s help I kept going. It was rough. But I chose my cards, I played my hand. I don't blame anyone for my life."
Working at Amazon is hard.
After months of being turned down for jobs, even with restaurant management skills from Los Angeles getting the Amazon gig was a breakthrough.
"If you have a heartbeat and cleared the criminal background, and you passed a drug test, you were hired. They did not discriminate in any way. That was a very expensive process," he says of Amazon. "It does not make any sense, part of the hiring process."
He says white-collar people are offered buyouts after two years, and blue collar after a year.
"Amazon is a youth-oriented company, there are people out of college managing 100 to 200 people. There are people my age but they're not moving up the food chain."
He's met a guy there who worked at Safeway for 35 years, and a former major league pitcher, although he can't recall his name. "Even management there's blue collar! It's a warehouse."
Thompson is has found himself at the nexus of the modern economy. There's a strong economy, an aging workforce, a surplus of low-paying jobs and a shortage of living-wage jobs and affordable housing.
"There's a lot of people my age, 55, 58, 59, who still have to work, and want to work. We bring a lot to the table in wisdom, accountability and desire."
Thompson was referred from Human Solutions to Worksystems for their CEO project, which takes people who have leadership potential. Job insecurity is all around.
"At Amazon I work with a woman exactly my age. She is a week away from being homeless, despite her resume, her college background." Her home is being foreclosed on.
"Full time at Amazon is not enough to live on. It's not enough to pay for housing, that's why I'm working two jobs." He says it's hard to get more than 40 hours a week there, although a couple working there together will do fine.
"My mom could work at one job full time at Fred Meyer for 28 years, and we could at least be in poverty. I know a caregiver who works 80 hours a week to make ends meet. That's where we're at today."
He knows he is lucky that Human Solutions paid his $1,265 a month rent for six months. In March he started paying it himself. Housing and wages are inextricably linked, and he has found even rural parts of Portland aren't affordable any more.
Having been homeless, he is less judgmental now and more compassionate.
"I have 30-year friends who don't know how to deal with it. They judged my need. They couldn't handle me not being Tony Robbins, like 'How could you get in that situation?'"
He heard Jordan Schnitzer, the philanthropist and owner of the Wapato jail building, on OPB and says he understands there are three types of homelessness:
"There's mental health issues, there's 'Oops' — that's my kind of situation — and the people who have addiction issues."
The story so far
"I've had an amazing life," he says. "I've been dragged through the newspapers for good and bad. Human Solutions and Worksystems didn't look at any of it as negative. It was experience."
Thompson is grateful. He was surprised, wandering the streets waiting for bedtime, that homeless people are kind to each other. They often greeted him with a genuine interest in his wellbeing. So much so that now he would rather find a job in the social services and try to help end homelessness, than simply work for a wage picking and pulling packages. He is interviewing for a job at Home Forward in property management and is hoping to scale back on Amazon.
"A year ago I would have had a hard time looking in the whites of your eyes. I was pretty broken and the thought of starting a job was paralyzing-scary."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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