Homelessness at PSU

On any given morning, the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel quietly receives its regular visitors.

On any given morning, the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel quietly receives its regular visitors. One by one, men arrive with baggage, which they leave behind before retreating through its two red doors to recieve a meal.

Located behind Portland State’s Urban Center Building, the church prides itself on being a historic landmark. It also offers meals to the city’s homeless population, many of whom live in the university district and walk amongst students.

As an urban university, PSU receives many of these individuals on its campus. Some simply pass through, while others, having been virtually excluded by shop owners, stop by to use the restrooms.

According to Daniel Ledezman, policy director from the Office of City Commissioner Nick Fish, on any given night, 1,600 people sleep on the street, and 42 percent are in the downtown area.

Campus Public Safety Office Chief Michael Soto said that, in the past, students and parents have complained about homeless people on campus.

“I can only respond when there’s a behavior issue, not simply because someone is homeless,” Soto said.

According to Soto, there currently is not an official university policy regarding homeless people on campus.

The most common complaint about homeless individuals is their hygiene, Soto said.  However, officers cannot simply exclude someone for that reason, though individuals are asked to go clean up if it becomes a persisting issue.

Erick Crouton, a sophomore at PSU, said that he doesn’t mind having outsiders on campus, but sometimes finds the odor to be both overwhelming and distracting.

“I can smell it if a homeless person used the bathroom before me,” he said.

PSU is different than the area’s other four-year colleges, such as Reed College and the University of Portland, because it is situated in the heart of downtown near homeless shelters and the free rail system.

In fact, according to Reed’s Director of Community Safety Gary Granger, unlike PSU, the university does not even bother to differentiate the number of crimes related to homeless persons because the number is too insignificant to be distinguished in a yearly analysis.

There are certain spaces on campus that are always restricted to outsiders, regardless of whether they are homeless or not, according to CPSO. One example is university housing, where access to resident areas requires a card. However, in a CPSO report, out of the 184 cases involving a homeless person at PSU in 2010, 18 took place in university housing, which represents about 9 percent of recorded cases.

Soto said outsiders gain access to these restricted areas due to negligence on the part of students when they fail to make sure that the entrance is fully shut.

According to Christina Shafer, assistant director for Residential Education, the majority of these incidents occur in the public entrances, not the residential floors of the buildings.

She said that the Broadway Housing Building and the Ondine Residence Hall receive the most violations, which may be because of their locations on busy streets.

According to Shaffer, Residential Education conducts yearly surveys that measure students’ perceptions of safety and security on campus. In 2010, the survey revealed that students, overall, felt very safe.

Perceptions aside, for many street citizens, the fears of police intimidation and the unforgiving public is real, at least for one man, who goes by the name of Tom. At 57 years old, Tom said he has seen many incidents of officers harassing homeless people, a fear that prevented him from going inside PSU’s facilities to use the restroom.

“[The cops] are scary people,” he said.

Due to fears of campus and city law enforcement officers, Tom said he stays in northwest Portland.

“A long time ago I used to sleep right there by that church,” Tom said, pointing toward St. Michaels, “And these college cops, they hated that, so they just stand there making funny noises, they bug you, bother you, ridicule you.”

Tom said he has been on the street since at least the 1980s, and since then, he said property laws and city ordinances have become more restrictive, which gradually leave homeless people with no place to go.

“Students often look at me judgmentally, they assume you have mental problems, it’s all very territorial nowadays,” he said.

In an effort to educate students about the common misconceptions surrounding homelessness, a University Studies capstone course brings students from the classrooms into the street, in effect bridging theories about homelessness with actual experiences as part of the pedagogical strategy.

Developed by Instructor Colleen Kaleda, a journalist with 15 years of experience, students in the “Street Roots” course write articles relating to poverty and homelessness.

Kaleda said she finds many of her students come out with a sense of empathy toward homeless individuals.

 “Stereotypes are broken down when students talk to these individuals,” she said. “They realize that alcoholism and drug use are often symptoms of being on the street, as coping mechanisms instead of the reason why people are homeless.” 

Representatives from Sisters of the Road (SOR), a homeless-advocacy group, believe that encounters with the homeless community on campus should not pose as a burden to students. Rather, it should provide them with a civic engagement opportunity.

“You are missing this great learning opportunity if you just notice their smell and appearance,” said Heather Dorfman, development associate at SOR and former graduate student at PSU. “Instead, we should be asking questions, [such as] why don’t they have health care and affordable housing, and step back from that blaming-the-individual mode.”

According to SOR Development Manager Lisa Hawash, in recent years public policy has been formulated with the intention of excluding certain individuals from business areas, which partly contributes to the reason why homeless and transients are more visible at PSU.

Private businesses are the ones backing such ordinances, Hawash said. She referred to 2008’s Sit-Lie Ordinance, that  has since been struck down, which excluded homeless people from commercial districts.

Dorfman said that, having worked with individuals with mental illness in the past through SOR, she has found that homeless people pose no greater of a risk to students on campus than their classmates.

“[What we do know] is that the people who commit crimes on campus are more likely to be students,” she said.?