Associated Students of Portland State University held a diversity town hall on Feb. 27 bringing students together to discuss diversity, equity, campus safety and food and housing insecurities.
Concerns expressed at the town hall focused on vehicle vandalisms and thefts in the PSU parking garages and building safety in the library, as well as the presence of houseless individuals on campus.
According to ASPSU Student Life Director Motutama Sipelii: “In general, people [who live on campus] are complaining that campus is starting to feel not as safe as it used to be, because a lot of things are changing, especially an increase in the homeless population, and so we’re trying to find a middle ground [solution].”
According to ASPSU, the Branford Price Millar Library has been at the center of most of the complaints in which students have been verbally accosted by houseless people. Many incidents included racial slurs, making students feel unsafe in the building. Students were also concerned regarding strong smells, and that the library is not as sanitary as it should be.
“It’s a difficult problem,” Sipelii said. “We want to help [houseless] people, but we cannot do that at the expense of our own well-being.”
Some ASPSU town hall panelists considered the houseless situation more of an issue for the city of Portland rather than the university. Others thought since PSU’s institutional mission is ‘Let Knowledge Serve the City,’ limiting access on campus, and at the library in particular, restricts knowledge and creates barriers.
“The issues, for me, tend to be on the campus edges,” PSU student Nicole Martinez said. “I don’t know if keycards [for campus building access] would actually stop anyone from getting in anywhere, because these buildings are pretty busy. As a woman I feel pretty safe on campus, but at night time I make sure to walk with other people. I try to stay aware of my surroundings.”
PSU’s library includes research in partnership with other institutions, and the open use of the library makes keycard restricted access near impossible. According to Sipelii, there have been other movements to restrict building access to the library which have failed, so the discussion is ongoing.
PSU graduate student Kari Goin said: “I personally don’t think [the houseless presence] is a problem. I think that people who are homeless can have a place that’s safe for a minute. This is a public institution, so we should be publicly available, but if it’s a response to a student need then that takes precedence.”
“I don’t feel safe in the library because I’ve been harassed so many times,” said student Taylor Nichols. “When [the houseless] are harassing [people], no one kicks them out.”
One suggested solution is to have a campus-sponsored social worker on call for non-students on campus with mental health issues. There are also resources sponsored by the City of Portland that can be called in the event that someone on campus is having a mental health emergency, so that the houseless receive assistance and a compassionate response, according to Sipelii.
Students were particularly concerned about safety in the PSU parking garages, where some students said houseless people are often found loitering or sleeping on the garage’s stairs where they leave trash and biomaterial. Some students did not feel safe entering the garages alone at night and preferred to travel together in groups when going home after dark.
“In the parking garages, there’s no safety whatsoever,” PSU student Thomas Perkins said.
Some students also said it was hard to avoid the garages after dark. Many students use the parking garages because they do not live on campus, making the garages part of many students’ commutes.
Students mentioned avoiding the stairs in particular, which are usually abandoned, closed in and have inefficient lighting. However, there is no other way to access upper floors. Students are also concerned not just with theft, but also with property damage.
“Three of my team members’ cars were broken into in one term,” PSU student Phoebe Longwell said. “And students have a hard time paying to fix their cars on top of the price of parking.”
Students suggested solutions such as security cameras in the parking garages, and considered security cameras to be a deterrent of this vandalism in particular. Some questioned the open access of those garages altogether.
Other possible solutions were working closely with the parking office. Students suggested if the parking office had a shared financial obligation for the safety of property, it would encourage a commitment to students and student property safety.