According to research compiled by the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative (HRAC) at Portland State, out of the 166 students surveyed, 64.5% experienced housing insecurity, 20.5% experienced houselessness and 55.4% experienced food insecurity, since March 2020.
Tara is a PSU graduate in mechanical engineering who was interviewed by the HRAC about her experience as a houseless student. “I would talk to you about interning at NASA and winning first place in the engineering research expo,” she said. “But I would never tell you that I owned a used Subaru and I lived in a tent.”
As a new response to this problem, PSU has partnered with First United Methodist Church (FUMC) to create the PSU Landing at FUMC, a shelter for PSU students facing houselessness or extreme housing insecurity. While PSU refers students to the FUMC shelter, the Landing itself is solely run and operated by FUMC.
According to the Dean of Student Life, Mike Walsh, the idea for the Landing came from a Senior Capstone led by the instructor Amie Riley. In advocating for houseless students, this Capstone strives to “work to change narratives, implement creative actions, and advocate for effective housing policies.”
The Senior Capstone’s research on houselessness and housing insecurity brought the issue to the attention of First United Methodist Church, according to Walsh. The HRAC’s statistics at PSU and data from the Hope Center on houselessness on college campuses across the country, alongside the Senior Capstone, led FUMC to recognize the student need.
“Working with professors in PSU’s Office of Academic Innovation, my colleagues and I frequently hear stories about students’ basic needs not being met, including housing insecurity, and the stress and strain it adds to students’ already complicated lives,” said Landing Director Scott Robison. “Knowing the student need and being aware of the space available in the church, I submitted a proposal to FUMC around the idea of supporting housing insecure PSU students and it was accepted.”
Since FUMC had experience operating shelters before, they decided to use that knowledge to create the Landing shelter for houseless PSU students, to address the housing insecurity on campus that existed both before and after COVID-19. According to Walsh, the Landing is not yet open for students because they have had delays, mostly due to COVID-19 and organizing volunteers. However, Walsh says, “We hope to [open] in this month.”
When the Landing does open, they will provide up to eight PSU students “space for sleeping, two meals every day, storage, showers, laundry, internet and computer access.” Lunch and dinner are provided to students in the program through PSU Eats, where they can get two meals a day at the Victors Dining Hall in the Ondine building on campus.
While eight students might seem like a small number of students compared to the need, FUMC has limited space due social distancing and COVID-19 safety.
“We know there is greater demand than eight students…we are actively trying to find a way to serve homeless students,” Walsh said.
However, space is the largest factor when trying to do something on campus. According to Walsh, resident halls are usually full, and setting aside rooms would be a financial burden on the school. Even when floating the idea of using the gymnasium or an empty classroom, Walsh discussed that the times those spaces are needed for classes or other activities would not conveniently work with the times that those spaces could be used by the Landing.
Despite the troubles of having a temporary shelter on campus, Walsh still hopes PSU will be able to either partner with other organizations or find a way to make it work on campus, to expand the program and better fulfill the needs of the houseless and housing insecure in the PSU community.
“This issue is not just going to go away,” Walsh said.
To access the Landing services, students need to contact Walsh’s office at Student Life and make an appointment. First, as Walsh put it, the student has to be “a PSU student in a degree-seeking program.” Second, the student has to be houseless or significantly housing insecure. Walsh defined “significantly housing insecure” as “living in a car, prolonged couch surfing [or facing] imminent eviction.” For students who are applying for the Landing program, it is first-come, first-served.
“FUMC is a reconciling congregation and open to all races, abilities, ages, classes, gender identities and sexual orientations,” Robison said. “There is no religious programming of any kind associated with The Landing.”
Since the Landing has not opened, there is not anyone who has officially been accepted at the Landing, but Walsh says his office has an unofficial waitlist that they will use to contact students in need when the Landing officially opens.
“We are pretty much ready to roll and get students in there as soon as it opens,” Walsh said.