Homelessness at PSU

Scout out the study nooks in Cramer Hall on a rainy day, and you are likely to find one or two homeless people sacked out in a chair or a corner, in the Millar Library or on the couches in Smith. As an urban campus in a city where more than 2,300 people sleep on the streets each night, Portland State’s heated, publicly accessible facilities provide a safe, dry place to nap for some of Portland’s homeless people.

Most are quiet and unobtrusive, but students occasionally complain, citing body odor trapped in a vacant classroom or irritating snores in the library.

“We treat it as a behavior issue,” said Craig Whitten, operations lieutenant for Portland State’s Public Safety Office. “If someone is sleeping, that’s not an issue. If they violate building policy, breaking the rules or the law, that’s when we take action. If they are problem people we have dealt with before, we may ask them to leave. Sometimes, there might be an offensive smell, or they might appear to be intoxicated, but that could be anyone, not just a homeless person.”

“It’s all behavior,” Whitten emphasized. “Otherwise, they are using a public space. They’re part of the public.”

Not every student is satisfied with Public Safety’s approach to homelessness on campus. “I think security should change its policies,” said Mario Campbell, president of Portland State’s College Republicans. He stressed that he spoke for himself on the issue, not for the organization, but he stated that “many conservatives feel the same way.”

“This isn’t a homeless shelter,” Campbell said. “I pay for these facilities. Obviously, it’s a public school, but the university is not here to accommodate the homeless people of Portland. It kind of detracts from my learning experience at PSU.”

Campbell suggested that homeless people on campus go to churches instead. “The churches would help people out, get them back on their feet. Why would these people change their situation if they can just come here? The homeless people I see and talk to, it’s the same people all the time.”

“I don’t think they’re hurting anyone,” said Amy Connolly, OSPIRG chair at PSU. “They’re not a problem on campus. They’re not affecting students. Many students just don’t see them. There are people who actually sleep right next to the OSPIRG office [in Smith]. Some of them are people with obvious mental or psychological disadvantages. There’s no place for them to go, with all of the funding cuts to shelters and hospitals.”

Connolly emphasized that the PSU chapter of OSPIRG provides students with many opportunities to engage issues of homelessness. “This term, we’re having an auction of local business donations, and the money will go to a local emergency-service provider. We also have weekly service events, where students go to places like soup kitchens, and we are in the process of researching a local campaign on homelessness.”

One representative of the homeless community that many students do see is Bear, a Street Roots vendor who makes the space between the Smith Center and Neuberger Hall his regular beat. Street Roots is a non-profit newspaper, advocating for and largely written by homeless people in Portland. Vendors are homeless or in homeless housing, and selling Street Roots is one of their primary sources of income.

“I actually have a degree from PSU, in philosophy,” Bear said. “I lived on campus from 1978 to 1982. I’ve been selling Street Roots on this campus for four years now.”

Bear tries to sell 20 papers a day, and is now “just barely” able to afford housing. “I used to crash out in the Student Union, on the couches. No one ever gave me a hard time. The only trouble I’ve ever had on this campus was when some bike cops harassed me about selling Street Roots, but that hasn’t happened too much.”

Bear said he comes to PSU to sell papers because people treat him with respect. “The students, they are open-minded, they have good hearts. Even though they don’t have a lot of money, I keep coming here because they treat me nicely.”