Since its creation in 2018, the Portland State University‘s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative has dove headfirst into research and advocacy work centered around better approaches to handling the houselessness situation in Portland and abroad.

Several graduate students projects were presented for the HRAC at PSU’s Native American Student and Community Center on Thursday, October 10, 2019.

Stefanie Knowlton, a communications specialist with the center, introduced the speakers. “Research only matters or matters most when it reaches people,” Knowlton stated “We want people to understand and care about the effort to prevent and solve homelessness on our campus and in our community,” she went on to say that the research presented at the event is meant to inspire others to do similar work. She then introduced Dr. Marisa Zapata.

Hear more from Zapata on Elia’s podcast Tripp-p:

Before giving her speech, Dr. Zapata acknowledged the local tribes which inhabited the land that PSU occupies, and asking for a moment of silence out of respect for them. The entire room went silent to honor Zapata’s request.

Zapata recently published a study that shows that there are possibly as many as 38,000 people in the tri-county area who could be classifiable as living in an unstable housing situation or houseless. 

“We want to acknowledge the significant disparities particular those experienced by native, black, and homeless today are intrinsically linked to those tragedies”. She also spoke on #Disarm PSU and how the decision was made to continue arming PSU Campus Public Safety officers “despite the number of black men murdered by police each year and the outcry by students and faculty of color as well as those who work with unhoused people to remove those guns.”

She went on to say, “it has been an amazing year, the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative was started about a year ago” and shared that at the beginning of its formation she was nervous, how the creation of the center was sudden, and its launching quickly announced with a press conference

She further went into detail that the HRAC has been working with the Dean of Student Life and has been awarded a STEP grant which “will provide more access to food for our students” and that the new student / faculty / employee homelessness study will inform the need for that and is the first study of its kind that has been done nationwide. 

“Our hope is with this kind of study and knowledge we’ll be able to explain to people better the needs of our students and staff,” and that it was created to  “lift the messages of struggle that people are really trying to endure in order to complete their studies and to be a part of the PSU community.”

Zapata shared that Todd Ferry, a director with the center and professor of Architecture, is holding a village model design exhibit in Alaska. He spoke about what it was like working on these projects with students. After thanking all the students for their work, she introduced the different research and projects that have been done at the center. 

Kenton Women’s Village

The first presenter for the event was Marta Petteni, who is with the Center for Public interest and design along with Emily Leickly, a Community Psychology graduate student who shared their experiences and lessons learned from working on the Kenton Women’s Village project. 

Pettini kicked off the presentation by stating, “today we are going to present Kenton’s Women’s Village 1.0 and 2.0 as well as the findings from surveying of residents from the 2.0 phase.” She went on to say that PSU’s work with “the Portland local villages started back in late 2015 when a public emergency was declared and it was estimated there were about 4,000 people on the streets during any given night.”

She shared that several ideas including transitioning a warehouse were suggested but that advocates and those with the lived experience of houselessness described that as “a nightmare scenario, like an internment camp” and that this led to the work in designing the villages. She went into detail about how the center for public interest and design started working with the Village Coalition [no relation to Village Portland].

Editorial note: In the spirit of full disclosure, the writer of this article is a board member of the Village Coalition volunteering in a media advisory role

Pettini went into detail about the difference between a pod home, which is used in the villages and a tiny house that has become a popular living choose. “Pods are different from tiny houses because they are not on wheels and it is under 100 sq. ft.” and that the villages and the pods could fill the gap between being houseless and getting sheltered.

“Villages are able to take advantage of un-utilized land” she explained. In 2016, the process for starting the design of the pods began, and that 14 teams designed their own pods for the Women’s Village along with 21 different construction firms that helped with the construction.

“When the city identified the site in Kenton as a potential site we began working with the neighborhood association and brought them into the design process,” and that when it was approved they partnered with several different city governmental, like the Joint Office of Homeless Services, and non-profit organizations, like the Village Coalition, to get it built. The Kenton’s Women’s Village Project also inspired the Clackamas Veterans Village Project.

According to the nine residents of the village who participated in their survey at the time they came to the village they had been houseless on average about five years before coming to the village and only lived there transitionally about two and a half months.

According to Leickly, who presented their findings, seven of the women housed at Kenton’s had at least a high school diploma and five of them had college degrees. She also shared that the residents who participated in the survey were satisfied with the quality of their pods and the general living situation in the village. 

Those same residents shared that they had still gone through the everyday struggles of being houseless, like finding sufficient food, while at the village but not to the degree they did before. A lack of a kitchen facility and laundry facilities on site added to their stress.

Leickly also went into detail that the interactions between residents of the village and Kenton neighborhood have been of a positive and often supportive nature. The location of the village, which was nestled next to two busy roads, also contributed to stress felt by residents. 

After talking to the residents of the village and incorporating feedback, the was redesign and move to a more permanent location. The new incarnation of the Kenton Women’s Village is located within blocks of its former site and PSU’s HRAC is using the lesson gained from this project to write a guide for designing villages for the future.

Homelessness at PSU Survey

Community Psychology graduate student Katricia Stewart designed the survey, with the center, that was sent to students, faculty, and employees to check on housing and food insecurity issues. She shared her insights on that process. 

“Nation research suggests that 10 to 14 percent of university students are currently experiencing homelessness,” Stewart stated “PSU students and employees experience homelessness and housing insecurities but it is unclear how many and who is most at risk.”

Stewart went on to say “PSU’s Committee for Improving Student Food Security found that 54 percent of students experienced food insecurity at PSU.” 

She told the crowd that the survey for food and housing insecurity was emailed to students, faculty, and staff. The survey will be open until November 5, 2019 and its results will help better inform how to address this issue to support the student body.

Portland Street Response surveying

Holly Brott, also a Community Psychology graduate student, presented her work with the Portland Street Response surveying. Brott began by acknowledging the different entities that have worked to create the Portland Street Response model and that 184 people living on the street responded to the survey. 

Village Portland reports: “Reflection: conducting the survey for the Portland Street Response”

Brott went into detail about what conducting the survey was like. She shared a map of the survey locations and indicated they were mostly downtown but some teams went as far as SE 122nd Ave. Brott shared the results from that survey, a complete report of those results was published by Street Roots and can be found here.

Enhanced Service Districts

Kaitlyn Dey, who is a recent PSU graduate and advocate with the Western Regional Advocacy Project presented on how Business Improvement Districts, which are typically called Enhanced Service Districts in Portland, are disproportionately creating anti-homeless laws. 

Dey took a moment before presenting her findings to explain what a business improvement district is. “They are the leading force behind criminalizing homelessness, but are extremely misunderstood, and in many ways that is intentional.” She went on to say “BIDs are special taxing districts that are formed where all the property owners are required to pay a property assessment fee which is used by special interest groups to enhance services like private security.”

Dey said that as an organizer and researcher, she said has worked on multiple projects researching the policies and operations of BIDs. Findings from this research by WRAP inspired them to start the Homeless Bill of Rights campaign. 

Dey explained that Portland has three BIDs currently operating, “The one that’s closest to [PSU] is Downtown Clean and Safe”. She explains that it encompasses most of downtown from the northern edge of the PSU campus and reaches into Old Town. She explains that the Lloyd District and Central Eastside Industrial District, which is the largest of the the, are currently operating as BIDs as well.

“Portland’s Business Improvement Districts are called Enhanced Service Districts and names of BIDs differ across the country” She then explained that the research inspired WRAP to work with University of California, Berkeley to write a report called Homeless Exclusion Districts “which examines BIDs in California and how they are used to exclude homeless people from public spaces” and that the main tactics used and identified in that report, which she has been seeing in Portland as well, are policy advocacy. 

“A specific example of that in Portland is the Portland Business Alliance, who manages Clean and Safe and has a history of advocating for different criminal ordinances, in particular sit and lay ordinances.” This is the origin of the pedestrian only signs that can be found in downtown Portland. These ordinances also increase the amount of police patrols in those specific districts.

Dey divulged that she had spent all of summer digging through public records requested from the Office of Finance, Multnomah County Clerk, Portland Police Bureau, and other branches of the city government and most of those requests were replied with the agencies requiring a $700 – $1,000 fee to get those records. This resulted in her dropping the applications for those requests. Most of the required fees were from the Mayor’s Office and Portland Police. She explained that since Downtown Clean and Safe started in 1994 there hasn’t been a public audit done on their practices allowing them to operate however they want.

Dey concluded her presentation by stating that BIDs are “an expansion of policing in the city by private trusts, business owners, and property owners specifically targeted against people who are living on the street to exclude them from public spaces.”

Applied Linguistics

Wendy Nuttleman, an Applied Linguistics graduate student, presented about narratives and language used by the public to describe houselessness. Nuttleman began by saying, “language is important because it frames the way people think about issues and can carry underlying assumptions, create misunderstanding, and can create stereotypes.”

Nuttleman’s work explored the use of language by different groups and examined what those meant towards the houseless community. One of her main sources was the One Point of Contact website ran by the city of Portland and she looked closely at the different words used to describe the unhoused by those making reports. 

She highlighted keywords used the most from those reports. “Transient” was a words commonly used even though it has been virtually removed from academia when used to describe an individual living on the streets. According to her research transient is a negative term associated with “illegal or deviant behaviors” and that it is a word that those wishing to work with the houseless population should avoid the use of. 

Nuttlemen hopes that her work with inspire a better interaction between those individuals living on the street and individuals trying to help them, like outreach workers. She concluded her presentation by saying, “After we finish this analysis we can use it to positively shift the narrative surrounding homelessness and to better align our solutions.”

A PSU student’s shared story of homelessness

To finish out the event, a film created by Knowlton and Lauren Everett was shared highlighting one PSU students struggles with houselessness. The students name is Luke Robinowitz, and he began the video by saying “From the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep it is a struggle to get your basic human needs met.” 

He shared that when he became homeless he didn’t know where he could turn and who to reach out to. “I just had to figure it out,” he said and then explained that even his friends turned their backs and refused to help him. “People look at you like your nothing,” he stated.

It was his decision to go back to school that got him off the streets and he is now a graduate student from the Sociology Department at PSU. 


There were several posters set up around the room showing information gathered by Urban Studies graduate students Jennifer Lee Anderson and Sarah Mercurio along with Architecture graduate student Molly Esteve. Current Architecture student Rebecca Taylor and presenter Marta Petteni also contributed to the posters.

Anderson and Mercurio’s poster focused on Urban Care Stations. Esteve’s poster focused indigenous housing in the metro area, while Taylor focused on safe parking at PSU and useful waste. Petteni’s poster was an HRAC diagram.


Cory Elia is a journalist, photographer, videographer, documentary director & producer, radio personality & podcaster. His journalistic focus is on politics, protest, and poverty.

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