Homelessness or slumber party?

Don’t bring your tent. And don’t bring anything to eat. This isthe homeless experience, man – you won’t be needing those things.Thursday night a half-dozen members of the PSU branch of OSPIRG didthe unthinkable: they slept outside, on the tennis courts, allnight, in the rain. The purpose of the campout was to raiseawareness about the plight of the homeless in our fair city bycreating a sense of community and empathy. The result was amisguided demonstration of classism at work.

State OSPIRG’s presence on PSU campus is a thorn in my side. Icannot stand the rhetorical politics, constant canvassing fordonations and the exploitative advertising for “employees to workfor the environment” – which means earning a commissioncorrespondent to solicited donations. Pyramid scheme, anyone?

The student leg isn’t much better. The group has become activistcaricatures – they champion everything liberal and never questionthe issues in total. The OSPIRG point of view is so redundant, thedecisions and acts so predictable and homogenous with the left,that they affect nothing.

A perfect example is the “I’d rather go naked than lose OSPIRG”campaign. Articles of clothing left throughout campus in a vainattempt to draw attention to the group ended up creating nothingbut a wet and smelly mess for groundskeepers to contend with. Notugly litter on par with the mother-fucking Harper/Klute campaign,but ugly litter nonetheless.

That said, I truly believe these kids have their hearts in theright place. Invited to the campout were representatives fromStreet Roots and the Homeless Working Group, and on Friday morningOSPIRG members volunteered at the Blanchet House, which preparesand serves food daily to those in need. Overall, I commend theirdesire to affect change but I am still left suspect of theirmotives. Homelessness is a consistent problem in Portland, one thatneeds to be addressed, but re-creating the homeless experience isan insulting and obnoxious show of thoughtless privilege.

Imagine the OSPIRG group donning blackface and drivingKillingworth St. in an attempt to recreate the African Americanexperience, or injecting themselves with influenza to recreate theexperience of being infected with HIV. While the idea seemsfantastically insulting, really it’s not far removed from sleepingon the PSU tennis courts in hope of understanding how it feels tobe homeless. The students involved are still simply embracing theaesthetic of homelessness – the kitsch aspect of it – withoutreally delving into the deeper personal ramifications of beingstigmatized the way the homeless are.

If the OSPIRG members really wanted to recreate the homelessexperience they might have tried it without $198.95 North Facejackets and sub-zero sleeping bags. In the real homeless experienceCampus Safety would have arrived, Tasers blaring, demanding theyvacate the property, instead of offering to open Shattuck Hall incase anyone gets thirsty or has to pee. In a real homelessexperience Vera Katz would have removed the OSPIRG members to anempty lot out near the airport, transportation not provided. In areal homeless experience the students would be up all night moving,trying to find a safe spot away from the dangerous eyes of society- not directly in view of them.

This is a pattern I’ve noticed with a lot of youthful activismin Portland, extending well beyond the students in OSPIRG. In asubverted attempt to atone for the crimes of theirmiddleclass-upbringing, students and activists take on parentaland, less obviously, judgmental roles in their work. The attemptsto cure the ills of society come with a healthy dose of pity that,albeit unintentional, cements their position of privilege over the”unfortunates” they’re trying to help. This perpetuates theclassist attitudes of the system of oppression they hope toovercome. Not enough emphasis is put on true empathy. Work to knowthe situation and then work within it to uproot the source.

OSPIRG’s style of activism is closer to putting a Band-Aid oncancer. It gives the impression of helping so you get to go homefeeling satisfied with your efforts. But the cancer is still thereand it’s going to keep getting bigger until something drastic isdone.