P
ortland was their last best hope.

Laura Brady and Jonathan-Christopher Roberson met in Hawaii in 2016. He was a local; she was a Tennesseee transplant living with two of her boys, Devyn and Gavyn, working to build a better life.

After a brief courtship, they all moved in together, quickly forming a close-knit family. But whatever Jonathan and Laura dreamed of for themselves, they certainly weren’t finding it in Honolulu. It was incredibly expensive (tiny apartments cost $2,000-plus per month) and housing assistance was scant (many services had  10-year waitlists). They simply couldn’t get ahead.

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When their roommate was suddenly deployed to Japan, the bottom fell out. The family had weeks to relocate — or end up on the streets. And Laura knew it would be a steep climb back out. She’d experienced homelessness in Tennessee and couldn’t bear to see it happen to her boys.

An online airfare search returned cheap flights to Portland. They dug the city’s artsy ethos, and the security company Jonathan worked for had a local position available. Their modest savings would scarcely cover tickets over and perhaps a week’s lodging, but they were optimistic and hard-working and out of other options.

“It felt like something was drawing us here,” says Laura. “And it was.”

Last fall, the family landed at a Gresham hotel. As they scrambled to locate housing, a gas station attendant told them about My Father’s House, a nearby East Multnomah County nonprofit shelter ministry.

Laura made contact, they were accepted into the family shelter (there’s no waiting list; the shelter accepts families in order of greatest need), and they got busy rebooting their lives: Jonathan working his new security job, the boys enrolling in school, and Laura scoring the first job to which she applied.

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The family thrived in the shelter program, which emphasizes the life skills that transform struggling families into self-sufficient, contributing community members. They took classes, paid down debts, and impressed staff with their positivity, work ethic and friendliness.

“With his aloha spirit and my southern hospitality, there it went,” laughs Laura, a natural connector who soon found herself organizing a shelter-wide Thanksgiving dinner.

Risk vulnerability, says Jonathan, and so very much becomes possible: “There’s always somebody willing to help. But you have to have the open mind and heart to receive it.”

That isn’t to say it was easy: shelter life meant many rules, little privacy and four souls squeezed into a studio apartment. But the boys, who could sleep through anything, adapted marvelously, and Jonathan and Laura, who worked opposing schedules, got through by playing to each other’s strengths, says Jonathan: “She’s the coordinator, and I’m the executor.”

Within four months, they were accepted into MFH’s one-year Stepping Stones program, which offers affordable housing and ongoing services to transitioning shelter families working toward financial stability. They signed a one-year lease on a standalone home on shelter property, overlooking Powell Boulevard and flanked by a towering cedar.

On the walls of their new home hang family photos and a chore chart specked with glitter stars. The boys, now 7 and 12, have their own rooms, and Laura’s fashioned an office from a walk-in closet, where she’s mapping her family’s future.

Priorities: finding a church (something smallish), deciding where to move when their lease ends (they love Gresham), and more schooling for Laura. Shelter life reminded her that she loves connecting people, so she’s researching hospitality programs, in hopes of starting a party-planning business for low-income folks.

Soon, she’ll also plan a wedding: one recent night when they were all just hanging out, Laura felt so moved by the sight of Jonathan tending to their boys that she spontaneously proposed.

He asked if she was really sure. And after all they’d been through, she definitely was.

Erin Bernard
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