Homeless at Portland State

The smell was the first indication that the person sitting behind me in Smith Memorial Student Union wasn’t a student.

The smell was the first indication that the person sitting behind me in Smith Memorial Student Union wasn’t a student. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I don’t associate the collective scents of urine, body odor, exhaust fumes and old cigarettes with the Portland State student body.

However, it wasn’t until I heard the telltale snuffling and mutters that I went ahead and jumped to a conclusion. I peeked over my shoulder to confirm it, and sure enough, I was right: Another transient was taking advantage of PSU’s open doors and heated buildings.

Don’t get me wrong—this is not about inherent prejudice directed at the homeless. These are hard times, after all, and terrible things can happen to the best of us. Much of the time, it’s hard not to feel bad for those who are down on their luck. It’s basic human empathy.

But that’s not the sort of person that PSU has become a safe haven for. This campus has become the vacation spot and rest area of choice for many long-term homeless individuals. And it really is unacceptable, even in a university that prides itself in serving the city.

Long-term homelessness isn’t the result of a single lay-off or even a string of bad luck. It’s more than that. It is the manifestation in many cases of mental illness or the direct consequence of substance abuse. These are the people whose behavior is most unstable or unpredictable. Most of them will not lash out and physically harm others (though it has happened, and will no doubt happen again). But some will.

The media has long glorified the plight of the homeless, from such depictions as the “wise vagabond” character in many shows to the story of Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic cellist who dropped out of Julliard and lived on the streets. These people are portrayed as humble, worldly and misunderstood. But the reality is that the homeless community is far more complicated than that. It’s a veritable grab bag. The man asking you for change might be the friendliest man you’ll ever meet and ripe with a variety of gripping stories. His neighbor, however, might be battling bipolar disorder without medication and that is dangerous.

Outside the halls of Portland State, transients are barely an issue to pedestrians. A brisk walk usually means both parties can ignore the other, and a conversation with a friend or with your cell phone (even if it’s off) can deter panhandling. But once inside, a transient is impossible to ignore. Beyond the smell and the noise, which can really wear down your ability to concentrate, there is also the discomfort to deal with.

Many students at PSU are uncomfortable around transients. For many of those students, safety is the primary concern. Because of the prevalence of mental disease and substance abuse among the homeless community, many students feel unsafe when transients come into PSU buildings. These transients are in some instances the same people who hurl obscenities at passers-by if they won’t spare some change. When they enter what students perceive as “safe zones,” most students don’t know what to do.

I’m not only talking about classroom buildings and SMSU, either. Despite the fact that most of the housing buildings at PSU are access-controlled so that only staff and residents can gain entry to them, some vagrants have still managed to get in. Just a few days ago, I walked into my own student housing building and was shocked to find a transient digging in one of the trash bins. My building is card-access only, meaning you need to have a valid access badge to get inside. Either someone held the door open for him or he found another way in. He left as soon as he finished with the trash bin, but I couldn’t help to wonder what negative scenarios could arise from such a breach of security.

PSU needs a better policy regarding transients in our buildings. As the weather gets colder and the rains come, the problem is only going to get worse—as it does every year. Maybe the school could offer alternatives or increase public safety patrols in public buildings. I’m not naïve enough to think that the homeless are just going to go away, but something has to be done. ?

Editor’s note:

The Vanguard published an opinion piece on October 25, titled “Homeless at Portland State” that discussed the issue of homeless gaining access to Portland State facilities. The article, written by Janieve Schnabel, merely put forth the notion that this may pose a problem for a number of reasons including the safety of Portland State students. The Vanguard would like to restate that the article did not promote any prejudice or stereotype of the homeless community, or put forth the idea that the homeless community is homogeneous.

The subject of homelessness is a complex and diverse issue. One cannot simply tackle it in so little time, and Ms. Schnabel did not attempt to in her article of opinion. While the homeless are a broad and diverse community, it is difficult to discuss the topic and not address issues such as mental health or drug addiction. While statistics may vary, mental illness does play a significant role in the issue homelessness in America.

When secured locations at PSU, such as student housing, are being breached, this poses a serious safety risk to students. Another example is the Smith Memorial Student Union, which is a common setting for study, but is also a common place to find a homeless person taking a nap. Anyone spending time at PSU is aware of this and Ms. Schnabel’s article attempted to bring this matter to light and discuss it plainly without promoting any offense.

While not every experience with the homeless is the same, which was put forth in Ms. Schnabel’s article, the fact is that some are. Whether we as a society like it or not these are the issues that we face, and in particular, we face here at Portland State. The Vanguard would like to restate the central argument of Ms. Schabel’s article was not to promote any prejudice of the homeless community, but rather to discuss the issue of safety and security on the PSU campus, which does include homeless people using the facilities and entering private areas.