Powerful Organizing "Expands the Horizon of What's Possible" at St. Stephens Human Services

The Minneapolis-St Paul metro region is in the middle of a housing crisis. Home prices are rising, rents have skyrocketed, and construction of new housing has not kept pace with the number of people moving to the region. The housing squeeze harms the most vulnerable first; with no affordable options and nowhere else to go, more people must resort to surviving on the streets.

In Minneapolis, the staff at St. Stephens Human Service are on the front lines of the Minneapolis metro region’s affordable housing crisis. Many of them came to St. Stephens so they could do more complex and intensive work than any other public or private organization.


“I was working with people that weren’t getting the help they needed. Sometimes we would have to kick people off our caseloads because we wouldn’t get the funding, which – I never wanted to have that happen,” Holmstrom said. “I wanted to be at a place where I could always work with someone.”

But huge caseloads, low salaries, and secondhand trauma makes their work extremely difficult. These advocates for our most vulnerable neighbors found themselves with no one to fight for them. That’s why, in early 2019, these workers came together to organize and join a union.

Service - and Struggle - at St. Stephens

Founded in the 1960s and established as a non-profit organization in 2002, St. Stephens is renowned for their efforts to end homelessness. Prominent business leaders sit on their board of directors. St Stephens receives awards and accolades for its work. But while the organization has achieved prominence, the work of its employees stays mostly behind the scenes.

ongoing challenges

The affordable housing crisis means that more victims of homelessness need their services. Over the last several years, caseloads at St. Stephens have grown exponentially.

“Without a doubt, there are more people looking for shelter beds than there are beds available,” said Dan Lauer-Schumacher, who works in the overnight shelters that St. Stephens operates.

“Sometimes there’s fifty calls a day for me alone, sometimes there’s more,” said Gino Nelson, one of St. Stephens’s longest-serving employees. “And I can’t be in more than one place at a time.”

“The need has continued to grow,” said Chris Knutson, who works as part of the Street Outreach Program. “Last July, we did a Point in Time count, attempting to survey everyone who is experiencing homelessness. We found over 735 people, which is a new high. And that’s been the story of the last few years.

Even getting relatively stable clients into housing has grown more difficult, says Chris Olson, a family housing advocate at St. Stephens. “Many landlords do everything in their power to put something in the housing application that will cut a family on public assistance out. Besides income, landlords look for other ways to discriminate and keep people out of housing. It’s pretty sad.”

The caseloads are not just large; they are difficult, both mentally and emotionally. Dealing with people in crisis means that St. Stephens’s employees also have to deal with exhaustion, safety concerns, and secondhand trauma.

“What we see every day, we can’t get that out of our minds,” said Olson. “Sometimes it’s just seared there.”

“People are doing home visits, working in the shelters overnight, sometimes without a lot of support,” said Megan Fatheree, a targeted prevention case manager. ”The front desk has a lot of vulnerable people coming in that don’t have much of a cup to draw on in terms of patience.”

All these challenges are compounded by low salaries. This is not an accident, as Lauer-Schumacher explained. “Nonprofits are providing a large share of the mandated services that are required by state and the counties. Instead of having those as employees in the county, which pays more and provides benefits, we subcontract those out to nonprofits who are able to provide that work at a lower cost point.”

But these “savings” are made on the backs of non-profit workers, who are often paid half of what unionized County employees earn with much more limited benefits.

This has a dramatic effect on workers, who struggle to stretch their low salaries in order to make ends meet.

“Our cost of living is going up as fast as the people we serve,” said Knutson.

“I see so many of my coworkers having to work second jobs just to make ends meet,” said Olson.

“We were seeing coworkers struggling, living paycheck to paycheck, especially anyone with kids or student loans, and many people are working multiple jobs in order to make ends meet,” said Fatheree.

Huge contributions, but little recognition

The lack of recognition from management added insult to injury for St. Stephens employees. As one of the longest-serving St. Stephens employees, Gino Nelson has received numerous awards for his service, including a McKnight Award in 2012.

“When they called me, I thought it was someone playing a joke on me,” said Nelson, laughing. “So I hung the phone up.”

The nomination was real; Nelson had been nominated by dozens of people he’d worked with in the community. But despite the community’s appreciation, Nelson still didn’t receive the recognition he deserved in the workplace.

“When I won the award, I invited my then-supervisor to come to the ceremony, and the supervisor told me that they could not be there. That was painful for me,” he said.

“There was lots of support from people I didn’t even know across the state. And behind it all, donations went up here when I got the award, but nothing increased in my pocket.”

Organizing Campaign begins

In late 2018, St. Stephens employees began to meet and discuss ways they could address the many problems they experienced at work.

Luckily, several St. Stephens employees had experience as union members: Chris Olson was a UFCW member for 36 years, and Megan Fatheree was an AFSCME member at her previous job at St Joseph’s Home for Children, even serving as the president of her local.

“In my previous job, I felt that someone had my back, and there was someone to go to if there was an issue,” said Fatheree. “Not having that here – it was a noticeable difference. I wanted some of those protections in my current job also.”

Holmstrom had also been a union member in past jobs; she used that experience as a founding member of the organizing committee. She said one-on-one conversations were a critical part of building support. “For us, it’s easy because we’re social workers. We ask this every day, so asking an employee what they need is so first nature,” she said.

Knutson also got involved in the organizing campaign early. “We met at a bar and just started talking about, yeah, we really should have a union.”

Others at St. Stephens came on board quickly. “I was very buoyed by the fact that, here was a bunch of 20-somethings and 30-somethings, getting involved in recognizing what they could do to better their workplace, which ultimately betters the lives of our clients,” said Olson.

Election Results

In July, St. Stephens held their NLRB election and won by a landslide. 88% of the St. Stephens workforce voted; 80% of those supported unionization.

As a member of the organizing team, Fatheree says the result was validating. “It showed that we really did put in the effort to talk to and hear from people, and we’re on the right track.” But the newly unionized members had no illusions about the work ahead. “I’m a person that – I don’t get excited until the job is done,” said Holmstrom. “Of course it was exciting, but also it was like, we have more to do.”

contract negotiations

In September, the newly-formed St Stephens negotiating team sat down with management for their first round of contract negotiations.

As a negotiating team member, Knutson says the chance to negotiate with management is exciting. “When else do you get to sit across the table from your managers, instead of being told no and stewing about it with your coworkers in the cubicle?”

“EXPANDING THE horizon OF WHAT’S Possible”

But even before the negotiating team settles on a contract, workers report a clear change in the organization’s culture. “There’s a lot more communication and support between the departments as a result of this,” Fatheree said. “And a lot more communication around what we want in a workplace and how we get there. Our whole horizon of what’s possible was expanded through this process.”

St. Stephens workers are quick to point out: it’s not about the money, or the accolades. It’s about the mission.

“Ending homelessness is a long-term goal, so it needs sustainable energy,” said Fatheree. “I’m hoping for more sustainable work, which ultimately leads to better services for people we serve, and to move the dial a little bit closer to ending homelessness.”

“When it’s all over, I’m not worried about a shrine behind me,” said Nelson. “What’s important to me is my purpose.”

While St. Stephens workers fight to improve the lives our most vulnerable neighbors, AFSCME Council 5 is proud to help them fight for dignity in the workplace.